WASHINGTON_A plan to track foreign visitors as they leave the country has been stalled along land borders but will go forward for air travelers, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday.
The department does not have a viable system to track people crossing into Canada and Mexico by land, he said. But he emphasized progress at monitoring travelers coming into the U.S.
"Our goals haven't changed, but our priorities have been tailored to the highest risk," he said in a news conference.
"The highest priority is to keep terrorists out of the country," he said. "If we keep them out in the first place we don't have to worry about them staying over."
Chertoff's comment follows a report by congressional investigators that said it will take five to 10 years to develop the technology needed to implement the exit part of the plan without major disruptions.
In a report released Thursday, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the entry portion of the Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology program, known as US-VISIT, has been installed at most of the nation's land borders with minimal disruption.
The entry portion of the program includes biometric features such as digital scans of fingerprints to identify foreign visitors to the U.S. Congress required the program following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to keep terrorists from entering the country.
However, the congressional mandate for a similar biometric exit program has not fared as well. The GAO, Congress' auditing arm, found that implementing a biometrically based exit system similar to the entry system "would require new infrastructure, and would produce major traffic congestion because travelers would have to stop their vehicles upon exit to be processed - an option officials consider unacceptable."
The New York Times reported Friday that officials had given up on plans to develop a facial or fingerprint system for tracking the exits of foreign visitors.
But Chertoff said the department intends to implement an exit system for air travelers, focusing on foreigners who aren't Mexican or Canadian. Keeping track of people who leave by land would come later, he said.
He said an exit program for people who cross U.S. borders by land, using current technology and facilities, could create traffic jams 10 to 15 miles long.
Homeland Security Department spokesman Jarrod Agen said the agency has been testing an exit program using radio frequency identification technology rather than biometrics. He said the department is evaluating the results of the RFID testing, including an economic analysis, to see if it would be feasible as an interim measure.
However, the GAO report found that there were performance and reliability problems with the RFID technology, in addition to the failure to meet the congressional mandate to use biometrics.
A more fundamental problem was that "the RFID tag in the visitor's arrival/departure form cannot be physically tied to an individual, which means that while a document may be detected as leaving the country, the person to whom it was issued at time of entry may be somewhere else," the report said.
Associated Press writer Leslie Miller contributed to this story in Arlington, Va.