Two congressional staffers on Tuesday suggested that Congress is unlikely to approve a request by the Obama administration to transfer the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) office responsible for enterprise biometric identity matching services to the largest user of those services, Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The DHS FY ’17 budget request calls for moving the Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM) from the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) to CBP. Paul Anstine, the staff director on the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, said at the annual Connect ID conference that he “is very skeptical” about the proposed move.
Anstine said that OBIM provides “backend tactical matching” across DHS and “I don’t think it’s very helpful to have one component agency controlling that backend…so that we’re not having turf battles over whether they’re supporting one component over the other.”
In April the House Homeland Security Committee is expected to introduce legislation that prohibits the transfer of OBIM to CBP or any other operating component within DHS, Anstine said. The office needs to remain “centered in DHS headquarters,” he said.
DHS is also proposing that NPPD be reorganized and renamed to align with its core missions of cyber security and infrastructure protection. While NPPD isn’t considered an operational component of DHS, it houses the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team and the National Cybersecurity Coordination and Integration Center, which help the federal civilian government and the private sector in alerting and responding to cyber threats.
Anstine said it is “conventional wisdom” that OBIM doesn’t belong in NPPD either and needs to move to a non-operating agency.
Anstine said an important part of the skepticism about the proposed transfer is that CBP has dragged its feet for years in implementing a biometric exit system for foreign nationals departing the United States even though Congress mandated such a system more than a decade ago.
“Up until recently,” Anstine said, “CBP has not been super jazzed about biometric exit. The agency is moving more aggressively now to begin implementing a biometric exit capability beginning with airports in 2018 and Anstine said this is a positive.
OBIM manages the DHS biometric repository, which stores biometric data, primarily fingerprints, to help the department’s various components verify the identities of foreign nationals who may be seeking to enter the country legally or illegally, or applying for immigrant benefits. The office is planning a major upgrade to the system, which is called IDENT. The upgraded system will be the Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology system, or HART.
IDENT is based on fingerprints and the initial capabilities of HART will include finger, face and iris. In addition to multiple biometric modalities, HART will be able to handle more queries and store more data than IDENT.
Gene Hamilton, general counsel to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interest, told attendees that CBP “would be perfectly capable” of housing OBIM but that overall DHS remains “very stovepiped than folks would like to believe it to be.”
There are still “natural barriers” to interacting and sharing information among DHS components and agencies, Hamilton said. These include bureaucratic and technical barriers, he said, adding that it is “more comfortable” to have certain functions reside at DHS headquarters that “each of the components are going to rely upon” as well as other departments like Defense, Justice and State.
Hamilton also said that the closer OBIM is to DHS leadership then the more likely the department will get its larger biometric initiatives implemented.