Guarding the Borders
Tracking 'Terrorist Travel' Is a Key Defense
By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2004; Page A22
The U.S. intelligence community has made immense strides in detecting terrorists by scrutinizing their passports and other travel documents, and U.S. immigration officials at airports and border posts need to be trained in these arcane spotting techniques, the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks concluded in its report released yesterday.
The report contains many previously classified details about an emerging intelligence community discipline: the tracking of "terrorist travel." Officials, for example, study the markings on foreigners' passports, analyze the travel patterns of extremists through lands such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, and keep abreast of the activities of passport forgers.
Massive expansion of this program is among a number of recommendations dealing with homeland security in the report. Some would affect U.S. citizens -- one said Americans, like many foreign visitors to this country -- should have passports with their fingerprints or other "biometric" data. Civil libertarians attacked the idea.
"Targeting [terrorists'] travel is at least as powerful a weapon against terrorists as targeting their money," the report said. ". . . Better technology and training to detect terrorist travel documents are the most important immediate steps to reduce America's vulnerability to clandestine entry."
But, it said, "new insights into terrorist travel have not yet been integrated into the front lines of border security," such as by training Homeland Security officers at airports and overseas consulates, and connecting them to databases. The nation's still-minuscule efforts at terrorist travel intelligence, scattered among several agencies, have "produced disproportionately useful results," the report said. The efforts "should be expanded."
Travel is a danger for terrorists because they must present themselves to government officials, and travel documents are "as important as weapons" to them, the report said. It documented how al Qaeda set up a passport-making operation in Afghanistan that altered travel and identity papers. Al Qaeda members recycled dead members' documents to others, and trained in lifting and replacing photos and altering border stamps. They also learned and exploited the minute anomalies in the immigration rules of scores of nations, the report said.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government was ill-equipped to match al Qaeda's sophistication in this area, partly because the Immigration and Naturalization Service was overwhelmed even by its basic immigration tasks, the report said.
Even so, five al Qaeda members who intended to take part in the Sept. 11 attacks were denied entry into the United States because their papers were not in order. The commission's report also said that if immigration rules had been enforced strictly, as many as 15 of the 19 hijackers might have been barred from the country because they were not the tourists they claimed to be, or they violated other regulations.
Officials said analysts at the CIA and elsewhere now keep track of the theft of blank unissued passports around the world and bribe-taking by employees of passport offices in foreign nations.
The report said Homeland Security's intelligence operation "should receive more resources" to develop a corps of analysts dedicated to terrorist travel.
In other recommendations, the commission praised a Homeland Security program called U.S. VISIT, which collects information about some foreigners entering the country on visas. It said the program, which stores people's pictures and two fingerprints, should be expanded to cover millions of other foreign visitors, and that this data should be integrated into a larger information network.
The Homeland Security Department recently requested bids for a company to create a prototype U.S. passport with biometric features, along the lines of one of the commission's recommendations. U.S. officials already have asked other nations to create such passports.
"We may be getting the back-door creation of a national ID card" that raises many civil liberties concerns, said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and privacy office.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Through the U.S. VISIT program, some visiting foreigners entering on visas are fingerprinted and photographed at checkpoints such as this one at San Francisco's airport.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez -- AP)
A July 23 article on U.S. intelligence agencies' ability to track terrorists' travel misidentified the agency that has requested bids to create a U.S. passport with biometric features, such as fingerprints. It was the State Department, not the Department of Homeland Security.
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