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Biometrics Helping Identify Foes in War on Terror

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 5, 2004 – You can change your name and appearance. You can get phony documents that back up your alias. But it's nearly impossible to escape the personal signature left by your fingerprints.

The same science that's been helping identify criminals for more than 100 years is now helping identify enemies of the United States in the war on terrorism, defense officials told the American Forces Press Service.

"Biometrics," the modern-day term for this science, involves physical and behavioral characteristics that identify a person, explained John Woodward Jr., director of the Defense Department's Biometrics Management Office.

While fingerprints are the longest-used and most-recognized example of biometrics, others include a person's facial features, iris recognition, hand measurements, voice, even gait, Woodward said.

Thanks to computer technology, coming up with positive matches using these factors -- once a painstaking manual process that could take weeks -- can now be done within hours, and sometimes almost instantaneously, said Thomas Gandy, director of the Army's Counterintelligence, Human Intelligence, Disclosure and Security Directorate.

The Defense Department is collecting these characteristics -- beginning with fingerprints -- and entering them into a huge database of known and suspected terrorists. In the long term, it's expected to evolve into a system that identifies people through a full range of biometric characteristics.

The new Automated Biometric Identification System, being built by Lockheed Martin, will consolidate, store and search all fingerprint data collected by DoD, eventually expanding to include other biometric factors, explained Gandy. Staff at the DoD Biometric Fusion Center in Clarksburg, W.Va., will manage the system.

The new system, to be patterned after the FBI's database, will offer something Gandy said the current Biometric Automated Toolset in use by the military since the early 1990s doesn't: full compatibility with other U.S. government databases, including the FBI's library of 48 million fingerprints.

Last February, DoD took a major step toward this goal by requiring all military units taking electronic fingerprints from detainees, enemy combatants and other foreign "persons of interest" in the war on terror to ensure they comply with FBI standards, the accepted international standard.

In his memo directing the change, John Stenbit, DoD's chief information officer, called this new standardization and interoperability "key tenants of success" in fighting the global war on terror. The new interoperability will give U.S. forces "a powerful offensive capability," he wrote.

Woodward said fingerprints collected by U.S. troops can now be readily compared against those in the FBI's database, tens of millions of fingerprint records in other U.S. government databases, and those in searchable databases of U.S. allies.

This will give U.S. forces valuable information as they deal with suspicious people on the battlefield, Woodward said. "Has that person been a detainee before? Has that person been arrested in the United States or any of its allied countries?" And just as importantly, he said, "Can this person be tied to other incidents?"

"Our requirement is a lot like the one that developed in the late 19th century in the criminal justice system," said Woodward. "If U.S. forces encounter a person, they want to be able to link that person to previous identities or activities such as previous terrorist acts."

While DoD builds its new Automated Biometric Identification System, it's already finding that biometrics is paying off in the war on terror.

Fingerprints collected by U.S. troops and other government operatives in Iraq and Afghanistan are helping put names and faces to insurgent activities and identify released detainees who have returned to terrorist activity.

Lynn Schnurr, director of information management for the Army's intelligence directorate, told the Pentagon press corps last August about a dramatic example of biometric-systems contributions to the battlefield.

Coalition forces briefly detained an Iraqi man in September 2003, releasing him after taking his fingerprints and entering them into the Biometric Automated Toolset database, Schnurr explained.

Last July, soldiers detained the same man -- although he looked dramatically different than he had 10 months earlier and used a different name -- under suspicious circumstances. A positive fingerprint match confirmed he was the same man and quickly tied him to the earlier incident despite his denials, Schnurr said.

In another good news story, fingerprints are credited with identifying Mohamed al-Kahtani, the presumed 20th hijacker in the plans for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Kahtani didn't initially disclose his identity when he was taken into custody at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba--but his fingerprints did. U.S. officials came up with a positive match when they compared the fingerprints taken in Southwest Asia with those taken when he was denied entry into the United States in August 2001.

Woodward called biometric information being collected about detainees and enemy combatants "a national homeland security resource" that can save lives on the battlefield as well as in the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security began using biometrics last summer to screen visa applicants attempting to enter the United States. Under the US- VISIT program, applicants must submit fingerprints and facial photographs.

"This gives us a way to vet people who want to come to the United States," Woodward said. "We can search that information to see if this person has been a detainee."

Woodward said "the appetite for more and better biometrics for an ever-wider string of operations is large."

Visionaries at the Biometrics Management Office foresee a day when troops will have rugged devices so compact they fit into a backpack, but powerful enough to give them what Woodward calls "identity dominance" in a wide range of situations.

"When you're dealing with someone on a foreign battlefield, you want to know who you're dealing with," he said. This applies wherever U.S. forces operate, he said, from military checkpoints to the high seas, as U.S. forces conduct maritime interdiction operations. "People want to know if there's anybody on this dhow who we may have to be wary of because of a terrorist or criminal connection?" Woodward said.

Down the road, biometrics could give U.S. forces capabilities now conceived of only in comic books and superhero films.

Sitting at a dinner table, a servicemember could secretly snap photos of the other guests at the table, beam them to a distant database, and get a positive identification before getting to the dessert course. Flying over a riot scene, a helicopter could positively identify a known terrorist, and then swoop down to make an arrest.

"If you could field that kind of capability yesterday, it would not be soon enough," Gandy said.

Woodward acknowledged that biometrics is "new ground in a lot of ways" but said DoD is making big strides. "It's beyond just a potential capability. It's a real capability," he said.

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