The likelihood of war in Iraq has raised new concerns about the US Department of Homeland Security's progress in deploying the IT infrastructure needed to improve border security.
Asa Hutchinson, the department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, said the DHS was likely to meet the 31 December deadline for deploying a new entry/exit system at the nation's airports and seaports.
He added, however, that the 2004 and 2005 deadlines for deploying the full array of IT systems along the land borders with Canada and Mexico could prove too difficult and expensive to meet. "That takes new systems, new infrastructure that are not even in existence today," he said.
The need for a reliable and efficient system at the borders has been "made more urgent by the prospects of the United States going to war with Iraq and the possibility that Saddam Hussein might try to use weapons of mass destruction in America," said Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
DHS frontline troops at the borders and ports "are woefully understaffed, working with obsolete technologies, [have] inadequate support for training and are simply not up to the challenge," Flynn said.
Under law, the Department of Homeland Security has until the end of 2005 to complete the deployment of an integrated entry/exit system that makes maximum use of biometric technologies to identify foreign visitors to the US and reduce the possibility of terrorists using forged documents to cross the borders.
So far, more than six million biometric border-crossing cards have been issued, and recent pilot programs using the cards on the Canadian border have uncovered more than 250 impostors, Hutchinson said. Additional biometric card readers are scheduled to be deployed by the end of the year.
But the IT infrastructure challenges are formidable.
"Biometrics will be part of the entry/exit program, but we don't have the infrastructure in place to accommodate that," said Robert Mocny, director of the entry/exit program at the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"The challenges for the land border are daunting," Mocny added. "Especially when you talk about the 50 largest land ports of entry. There are environmental laws [and other restrictions that apply to the growth of infrastructure."
Mocny said $245m given to the department for IT infrastructure improvements and a portion of the $362m provided for the entry/exit system will go toward biometric infrastructure support.
But that may not come close to paying for a complete system, said Nancy Kingsbury, an analyst at the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress. In addition to card readers, the infrastructure would include computers and communications enhancements to handle more electronic processing.
"There are issues of scalability that will require considerable testing and development to bring the system to the point where hundreds of millions of identity checks annually are feasible, accurate and efficient," said Kingsbury.
There are also questions surrounding the technical and operational effectiveness of biometric technologies in projects as large as border control, she said.
"The costs and benefits of the system need to be assessed," Kingsbury said. "Suffice to say, we're talking billions of dollars just to implement biometrics."