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US Seeks to Implement Fingerprint System for US Visitors This Year, says Official - 2003-08-08

Asa Hutchinson, Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security discusses measures the U.S. is taking to further ensure security in the country. Mr. Hutchinson talks about the implementation of biometrics for visa holders, such as fingerprints and iris scans, and the new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, designed to let university officials electronically update the status of their international students.

Borgida: And now joining us, Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security, Asa Hutchinson. From 1997 through the year 2001 he served as a member of the U.S. Congress, from the wonderful State of Arkansas. I've been there a lot. Thanks so much for being with us today. The topic is terrorism and security here in the United States. We're delighted you could be with us today.

If we could begin with you putting the challenge you face in some perspective for our foreign audience. From your standpoint, what is the biggest challenge for you in this job?

Hutchinson: Well, I think the biggest challenge, of course, is to make sure our country is secure from those people who want to harm us, but at the same time to make sure we don't close off America, we continue to welcome our foreign guests. To send the right signal that we're serious about security, but at the same time we have a desire to continue to welcome foreign students and visitors to the United States.

Borgida: Finding that balance is so tough these days. You're talking about the use of some high-tech opportunities to deal with the issue of students and visas and so forth. The word "biometrics" is being used. Explain what you're doing now for us.

Hutchinson: Well, a number of things. First of all, we need to work with our international partners in developing a biometric standard for our passport documents. But in addition, we're moving ahead this year to make sure that in our airports and seaports, as visitors come to the United States, that we can identify who they are, to be able to take a fingerprint to assure their identity, welcome them to the United States, but on the small percent of individuals, very small, that might check against a terrorist database, then we will be much safer because of that.

And so both in travel documents but also being able to track the foreign visitors in the sense of knowing who comes in and when they leave, we want to develop that system in the United States.

Borgida: So biometrics, fingerprints; eye prints, is that being used as well?

Hutchinson: Well, I know that in some countries, for example in the Netherlands, they use iris scans. And so we want to develop a system that first is fingerprint based, because that is most acceptable across the world, and we have a greater capability to identify terrorists or criminals from that. But then we want to be able to have the capability to move to facial recognition or iris scans or some other biometric identifier that is accepted in the world standards. Because we need to move together in that arena. So we're working with the international groups to develop exactly what is the most effective and cost efficient to do.

Borgida: Let's talk about the issue of airports and people coming into airports. There was a recent warning and concern about passengers perhaps using electronic means, cameras and various items, to smuggle weapons on board or hide explosives and so forth on passenger planes. How big a challenge is that? Because of course that's the most dramatic image that we have of 9/11 that strikes all of us with fear.

Hutchinson: Well, it does concern us. We've had recent intelligence that al-Qaida continues to have a fixation on aircraft, believing that that is a good weapon that they can use against the United States. We have put in very significant security measures, from thousands of Federal air marshals to screening devices. And so we have confidence those security measures render our airplanes safe.

But whenever we get intelligence they might be using cameras or other electronic equipment to have a small explosive device in there, we're taking extra security measures, checking those more closely as people move through the airports.

Another thing that we're looking at is the continued concern about MANPAD's or surface-to-air missiles, and trying to reduce the availability of those around the world, and making sure our airports are protected from that possibility.

Borgida: And you're of course responsible for airports, for ports, for waterways, all the methods of transportation. That's quite a large portfolio. Talk to us a little bit about the challenge at the borders, because there have been expressed concerns that items, perhaps larger than cameras and so on, could be smuggled into this country below deck, hidden somewhere on board various ships and so on. That would seem to be, with the vast border, a real challenge as well for you.

Hutchinson: Well, we have two issues there. One are the 6 million seagoing containers that come into the United States every year. We have a very effective targeting system, based upon intelligence, looking at the shipper information, the security of the containers. And we electronically surveil all that come in, in terms of the manifest. We physically inspect all of the at-risk cargo, but we're trying to target the right ones, and I think it's a good deterrent, but also it's very effective for stopping containers that would have harmful products coming to the United States.

At our borders, of course we historically have had open borders between Canada, and we've had borders with Mexico that have been tighter, but still we've had many border crossers coming back and forth. Now, in the time of terrorism, we have to tighten those. And so we're increasing our border patrol activities between the points of entry, where people legitimately come in, and we're also looking more closely at fraudulent passports, travel documents, and we're taking more biometrics as people would come in. We're still trying to move people through quickly, but we've increased the security on our border and for containers as well that come into the United States.

Borgida: Do you think the average American at this point, in 2003, feels confident in the American system of protection? Because one does hear criticism from some quarters about the porous southern border to some extent, where drugs have traditionally flowed through into the United States. And there has been some concern I guess with the air marshals. There was a report that there were fewer air marshals on board airplanes and then suddenly there were more on board airplanes, a public relations issues for you I'm sure. Talk to us a little bit about that point. How confident do you think Americans feel in what you're doing?

Hutchinson: I think Americans feel confident that we're safer today than we were on September 11th, that the Department of Homeland Security is working very hard and putting in place security measures, better policies, investing more, that makes our country safer. I think they also recognize, though, that with the freedoms that we have and the commercial traffic that we have, that it takes more than just the Federal Government to secure America. It takes investment by the private sector, businesses, companies, that understand the importance of security, and the average citizen to keep an eye on things.

Borgida: Are you getting help from corporations and businesses? Are they actively involved or are they fearful that they'll lose a dollar in the process?

Hutchinson: No. A good illustration is the airlines. We called them last weekend. We had to cancel the transit without visa program. That was a vulnerability for us. They were very supportive. They accommodated the travelers. In addition, the port owners, which are private sector, they're investing millions and millions of dollars in their own security, in surveillance cameras. We're looking at our mail systems, some are privately owned, investing in security. So it's a good national effort, not just a Federal Government effort but a national effort, to protect America, and there is a great success story there.

Borgida: We're delighted to hear that, and we hope only the best for you in the challenge ahead. Asa Hutchinson, Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security, thanks so much for being our guest today.

Hutchinson: Thank you.