US-VISIT Changes Coming Slowly
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued many recommendations since 2002 to be implemented in the Department of Homeland Security’s US-VISIT program. According to a recent GAO progress report, DHS is slow to implement many of them.
The U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) is a directive to collect, maintain and share information, including biometric identifiers, on selected foreign nationals entering and exiting the United States. US-VISIT uses digital fingerscans and photographs to screen persons against watch lists and to verify that a visitor is the person who was issued a visa or other travel document.
The key recommendation, which GAO issued more than two years ago — and that has yet to be adopted — is to develop and begin implementing a system security plan and a privacy impact assessment.
“Although considerable time has passed since the recommendations were made, key actions have not yet been taken,” GAO says in its report. “The department lags in assessing security risks and planning cost-effective controls to address the risks, weighing the project’s value against its cost and risk, and testing the controls.”
“The longer that US-VISIT takes to implement the recommendations, the greater the risk that the program will not meet its stated goals on time and within budget,” the report adds.
US-VISIT has numerous successes under its belt. DHS uses it to identify foreign visitors entering at 115 airports, 14 seaports and 154 land ports of entry, says US-VISIT director Jim Williams.
US-VISIT has maximized the use of existing, nonstandardized infrastructure under a demanding schedule, said Randy Hite, GAO’s director of information technology architecture and systems issues, during testimony at a Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing. But the program still lacks a strategic plan, and its proposed strategies for tracking foreigners’ exits from the country do not appear to be cost-effective, Hite said.
“The program’s fit within the department’s operational and technology context remains unclear, and DHS has yet to demonstrate that early program increments are producing or will produce mission value commensurate with expected costs and risks,” Hite said.
Interoperability within DHS and with other federal agencies is another problem. Williams says US-VISIT is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Commerce, Defense, Justice and State departments to define their interoperability requirements. DHS needs one set of databases to link U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement inside the department and with the Justice and State departments outside it, Williams adds.
Additionally, GAO is also reporting that DHS has shut down a proposed border surveillance program because it was so far behind schedule.
A GAO report on snags in the “America’s Shield Initiative” said the Homeland Security Department had defined — after nearly two years — responsibilities for only three of 30 people the department hired to manage the initiative.
The GAO study, said Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, “gives further pause on the government’s ability to implement an entirely new program by 2008 — especially since they have not even developed any specifics yet to share with Congress.”
Higgins referred to the government’s proposal to require a passport or passport-like card to cross the Canadian border by 2008.
“This is further evidence that the travel initiative is wrong for U.S.-Canada relations and wrong for border communities like Buffalo,” Higgins said.
“We need to properly protect our borders rather than devastating local economies and creating economic barriers with our friends to the north.”
The America’s Shield Initiative, proposed by the Bush administration in 2004, was to have used sensors, cameras and databases with the goal of catching suspected terrorists and illegal immigrants trying to cross the Canadian and Mexican borders.