It went beyond mere bureaucratic incompetence last week when the Immigration and Naturalization Service renewed the visas of two dead terrorists who had killed themselves flying jumbo jets into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. It revealed a gaping hole in our national security. Believe it or not, there are hundreds of thousands of foreign students in the country, and no one knows where they are, what they are doing or whether they are enrolled somewhere taking flying lessons learning how to fly large airplanes into tall buildings.
What makes Sept. 11 doubly tragic and the visa episode so out of touch with President George W. Bush's war on terrorism is that the terrorist attacks might well have been prevented if there were in place a proper system to screen the entry and monitor the whereabouts and activities of noncitizens in the United States and to share information about them among law enforcement agencies. We have a global credit risk-management system that allows people to present their credit cards and have their credit approved within 30 seconds. The system works because it is built on a consistent and standard infrastructure that allows banks and merchants all over the world to easily participate and makes it very difficult to steal someone's identity.
This system is proof that a global security risk-management system can just as easily be deployed. That system can work to prevent such outrages as occurred shortly before Sept. 11, when one of the soon-to-be terrorists, Mohamad Atta, who was wanted in Broward County, Fla., was stopped for a traffic violation in a neighboring Florida county but allowed to go free because the officer had no way of knowing there was an arrest warrant out on him.
Non-Americans granted entry into the United States should be required to have a digitized identification card containing a biometric identifier (fingerprint, handprint, retina scan, DNA profile) that uniquely and consistently establishes their identity. The card can and must be connected to a national database of information that would be shared on a need-to-know basis with all federal, state and local government agencies with a legitimate need to verify the person's identity. This is the only way to be sure that noncitizens really are who they say they are.
Law enforcement agencies in one state must be able to know that a noncitizen has an outstanding arrest warrant in another state, and the INS should not give visas to people who are considered "wanted" by another organization. Foreign students who cannot verify their identity should not be allowed to register for classes, and individuals on student visas who are not verifiably in school should be rounded up and deported.
A digitized biometric identifier is essential to ensure that two different organizations are talking about the same individual. If one agency says, "Mr. X is a terrorist" and another agency says "Mr. Y just entered the country," how can the authorities know if these two people are really the same person? Some unique way of identifying individuals is required. Names don't work because they are not unique and they are easily falsified. Government documents are also easily copied. The only reliable way of confirming that two people are the same individual is through the use of biometrics. If two people have the same fingerprint, they are very likely to be the same individual.
(Need less certainty? Compare pictures. Need more? Compare DNA.)
This system is not foolproof since it would be wrong to require American citizens to have such an identity card, although people should be given the option to obtain one voluntarily to facilitate establishing their own identity. There is nothing, for example, to keep someone attempting to board a plane from showing a falsified driver's license and saying, "I am not required to have a digitized identification card, I'm an American citizen."
However, if such a card were required for noncitizens to obtain a visa, a green card or a driver's license, it would make it much more difficult to fabricate an identity in the first instance and to carry off the impersonation of a citizen. Moreover, if noncitizens were required to present their card to the INS periodically to verify their identity and location, it would make it easier to ensure that noncitizens did not overstay or abuse their visas and disappear inside the country. With determination and assistance from the private sector, the federal government could quickly implement a security risk-management system that employs digitized identity cards with biometric identifiers. Until then, however, we would do well to stop granting entry to noncitizens from countries that have demonstrated they harbor ill will against America until we can locate the foreign visitors already here.