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Army Tries Fingerprint Matching To Catch Iraqi Insurgents

Soldiers are carrying field kits they can use to collect digital fingerprints and other physical evidence from battle sites.
A long with their M-16 assault rifles and ration packs, some U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq carry equipment that's more likely to be found on a police officer or FBI agent. In an effort to catch insurgents, terrorists, and other enemy combatants, the Army is equipping soldiers with field kits they can use to collect digital fingerprints and other physical evidence from battle sites.

The effort reflects an evolution in the way the Pentagon views Iraq--from combat theater to a country in which attacks against U.S. forces and allies are treated more like criminal acts. The thinking is that enemies looking to undermine the U.S.-backed Iraqi government are drawing from a pool of insurgents, upping the likelihood that the same individuals are behind multiple attacks. "It's one more investigative tool they can use," says a spokesman for the Army's Biometric Fusion Center in Clarksburg, W. Va., which helps coordinate the program.

Following each hostile encounter, soldiers sweep the battle site in search of fingerprints and other evidence. They use what's called a biometric automated toolset to do on-the-spot scanning of fingerprints. The data is later transmitted by satellite to the Department of Defense for inclusion in its Automated Biometric Identification System database and to the FBI for entry into its Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System database.

Fingerprint Checks

Soldiers investigate beyond the bullet holes after attacks.

Soldiers investigate beyond the bullet holes after attacks.

Photo by AFP
Once in the database, the information is available for a number of applications. Among them: a program to establish an ID card system for non-U.S.-born contractors in Iraq. The effort was launched in the wake of the December 2004 attack on a U.S. base in Mosul that killed 14 soldiers and left scores wounded. The Defense Department concluded the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber who gained access to the base.

Now, foreign contractors wanting to work on U.S. bases must submit to a security check. If cleared, they wear a biometrically encoded smart card that has fingerprint images on it, which are read by a scanner at the base and matched against the person's actual fingerprints. As part of the background check, applicants' fingerprints are matched against fingerprint data stored in the Defense and FBI databases. "If your fingerprints have ever shown up on an explosive device, and you try to come work at a U.S. base, we're going to catch you," says Daniel Munyon, chief scientist at Computer Sciences Corp.'s global security services lab. CSC established and operates the program under a $22 million contract from the Biometric Fusion Center.

CSC has opened 10 ID stations in Iraq where contractors can apply for security clearance and a badge. More than 24,000 badges have been issued since the program started 12 months ago. It's risky work; CSC technicians have been within 100 yards of fire from rocket-propelled grenades, Munyon says. "You've got desert heat, sand, and many of these bases are in forward locations that come under regular fire," he says.

Transmitting the data back to databases stored in the United States also can be challenging, says Munyon, who notes the system is based on communications technology normally deployed in commercial environments. It "used to be hard-wired and fiber-driven; now we're taking all that and doing it over satellite," he says. "It's not that easy."

Next month, CSC is extending the program to enroll U.S. contractors. They won't be issued a biometric card, but rather a card that's linked with a PIN they'll need to enter into a reader to gain base access. It's all aimed at keeping up with an elusive enemy. Says Munyon, "The war on terror is global, and you often run into the same people in different locations."