Interrogators are scanning and saving fingerprints and other body information in databases to investigate suspicious foreigners and trace suspects in future terrorist attacks

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

March 4, 2003

5 Min Read

U.S. interrogators in Iraq are building a digital catalog of prisoners of war and loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, scanning and saving their fingerprints and other body characteristics in databases.

The data banks, controlled by the FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies, are being used to investigate suspicious foreigners entering the United States, as well as to trace suspects in future terrorist attacks.

The move also reflects the U.S. government's desire to keep tabs on Iraqi fighters after releasing them when the Iraq war is declared ended.

"We do this passive collection when we go in, because these guys will scatter over time," said Thomas Barnett, a professor at the Naval War College who advises the Office of the Secretary of Defense. "When you have the opportunity to tag them, you tag them before you release them to the wild."

While officials at U.S. Central Command refused to confirm the process, developers of the technology and some U.S. officials provided The Associated Press with details.

One of the tools, the Biometrics Automated Toolset, or BAT, is cataloguing Iraqis for "several classified databases" shared among intelligence, law enforcement and border control agencies, said Lt. Col. Kathy De Bolt, deputy director of the Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where the BAT was developed.

The idea is to use the rugged laptop and its attached scanners to "register" Iraqi prisoners, then alert law enforcers when one tries to enter the country.

"If you were at the FBI, wouldn't you want to know if someone were a Baath official and he did some bad things, and then he puts in a visa application to come to the United States?" De Bolt said.

"Although they might not be a terrorist now, they might have some anti-American feeling," she said. "They might be a terrorist in the future."

Some doubt the value of such a database. Since the U.S. government never showed a clear link between Saddam's regime and the Sept. 11 terror attacks, a compendium of Iraqis is probably of little use in homeland security, said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief.

"The people we were fighting were by and large conscripts. They're not a pool of future terrorist operatives," Cannistraro said.

Only the more "interesting" of the 3,500 current Iraqi prisoners--down from a peak total of 7,000--will find themselves in a U.S. database of terror suspects, De Bolt said.

U.S. military and intelligence officials started building the biometric dossiers in Afghanistan, taking digital scans of the fingerprints, irises and voices of Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners, including those jailed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

U.S. Special Forces continue to use the BAT in Afghanistan to spot-check detainees' features against those in an FBI database, De Bolt said.

Biometrics--the measuring of physical human features--ensure that a person, once registered, can be identified later, even if his or her identity documents or facial characteristics change. The process involves capturing and matching unique whorls on a fingerprint, vibrations of a vocal cord or patterns in an iris--considered the most reliable.

Stored in a central database, the biometric files get searched for a match each time they're queried by, say, an immigration inspector at Miami International Airport or an FBI agent poring over a crime scene.

"Let's say you pick up some documents in Buffalo, N.Y., and you lift a few fingerprints. You can scan them through the system. Let's say they match an (Iraqi) detainee. You know who handled (the documents)," a U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "That's already happening."

U.S. Military Police in Iraq use another biometric scanner-- developed by Florida-based Cross Match Technologies--to capture and transmit fingerprints to the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, said Adam Rosefsky, a company executive who handles government sales.

The FBI manages the data for the military and the Department of Homeland Security, said FBI special agent John Iannarelli in Washington, D.C. If it finds a match with a terrorist suspect, the FBI notifies Central Command, Iannarelli and Rosefsky said.

Army MPs used Cross Match to vet the backgrounds of the "Free Iraqi Forces," several dozen lightly armed Iraqi exiles the Pentagon organized to guide U.S. invasion forces, said Sgt. Dean Young of the 76th Military Police Battalion, Fort Bliss, Texas.

"We needed to see that we didn't have anybody embedding with us and then committing some kind of terrorist act," Young said.

Access to the catalogued Iraqis also is given to the State Department and Homeland Security border officials, officials at both agencies said.

Homeland Security's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement seeks matches of suspicious foreigners at the borders and during mandatory registration of men from 25 predominantly Muslim countries.

Such data led to the arrests of about eight terrorist suspects in recent months, a bureau official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

For now, biometrics are little use to the State Department, which isn't equipped to gather fingerprint or iris scans from visa applicants--or check them against those in databases, said Stuart Patt of the department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

The State Department is required to have the capability by 2004, Patt said.

For the Pentagon, biometrics may be key to finding a new kind of enemy that roams across borders.

"We're increasingly fighting wars against individuals, so you have to track individuals," Barnett said. "They're not going to be wearing uniforms. They mingle."

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