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PROTECTING AMERICA FROM TERRORIST ATTACK
War Zones Link to FBI’s Fingerprint Database

06/27/05

Fingerprint analysisWhen the U.S. military rounded up suspected terrorists in a raid in Iraq early last year, they booked and fingerprinted them using the same tools police in the U.S. use to check criminal backgrounds. The prints were logged, digitized, and sent through a secure network to the FBI’s massive fingerprint database in rural West Virginia, where they were added and compared to more than 49 million sets of prints already on file.

By sending the prints to our Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), soldiers could find out within two hours if any detainees had criminal histories in the U.S. They were also seeding a growing biometric database of suspected terrorists, making it harder for suspects to deny their identities or try to change them.

Now if any of the suspects try to enter the U.S., they will be flagged.

Of the suspects in the round-up in Iraq, 44 had criminal records in the U.S.; two were sought on federal warrants.

“Does that make America sleep better? Well, it should,” said David Shepard, an FBI supervisory special agent who helped link the Department of Defense to our Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division, home to IAFIS. Dozens of FBI agents and support personnel spent several years building the biometric link between the Bureau and the military.

Based in part on the success of efforts to plug the military into our fingerprint database, the DoD last summer created its own biometric database, the Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS), which is modeled on IAFIS. Prints sent to ABIS are also sifted through IAFIS, where they are screened for “priors” and compared to the FBI’s most-wanted terrorists list.

“We resisted the … tendency to ‘reinvent the wheel,’” John D. Woodward Jr., director of the Department of Defense Biometrics Management Office, said recently during a presentation on ABIS. “IAFIS is a perfectly good wheel.”

The military’s efforts followed Army Assistant Secretary John P. Stenbit’s 2003 directive that all new fingerprints be collected on FBI-approved equipment and conform to the widely-accepted standards.

Before ABIS, the FBI deployed fingerprint specialists to war zones, where they collected prints on suspected terrorists. Now deployments are much less necessary.

The value of screening fingerprints through the FBI’s database has been demonstrated several times when suspects were detained after their fingerprints showed they had been arrested before. In one case, suspected al Qaeda terrorist Mohamad al Kahtani was positively identified when he was taken into custody at Guantanamo Bay based on prints taken when he was denied entry to the U.S. in August 2001.

“It’s the classic recidivism,” Shepard said, referring to the repeat offenders. “It’s pretty standard stuff that happens thousands of times a day in America.”

DoD’s Woodward also referenced the FBI’s success in linking criminals to their pasts during his recent presentation on how biometrics will help soldiers in the field: “IAFIS makes it very difficult for someone with a criminal record to successfully say, ‘Officer, it’s a terrible mistake. I’ve never been in trouble with the law before.’”

Links: Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System | More fingerprint stories | More counterterrorism stories