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New weapon in terror fight touted

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge on Thursday praised Congress for funding a new program designed to keep tabs on foreign visitors.

Ridge, who was in Westmoreland County yesterday to hand out a grant of nearly $6 million to purchase radios for first responders to access a new emergency dispatch system, touted the U.S. VISIT Program as the next phase in the fight against terrorism.

“It’s another level of protection as we consolidate watch lists. We get a lot of information about terrorists every day, finding out about who they are and how they operate. We go into these places, and they leave certain pieces of evidence, like fingerprints,” Ridge said.

The program requires that foreign visitors be fingerprinted and photographed at major entry points in the United States, such as international airports, including Pittsburgh. Those security measures also would be in place at seaports and other land entry points into the country.

Visitors would again be fingerprinted upon leaving the country. The two sets of prints would be compared to ensure there is a match and that the same person who entered the country is leaving.

On Wednesday, Congress passed a $29.4 billion spending bill for homeland security that provided about $330 million to fund the program in 2004, one of the first major initiatives of Ridge’s cabinet-level department.

Ridge said the program won’t be intrusive, and travelers won’t be dramatically affected by the increased security measures at airports. The benefits, though, will enable authorities to keep better records and better tabs on visitors, he said.

“If you are one of those people who are visiting us, we’ll know who you are and that you’ve entered. And then we’ll have a system to match your fingerprints and see if you’ve left after your visa has expired. If you haven’t gone and we know you’re around, we’ll come and look for you,” Ridge said.

Ridge yesterday also downplayed reports released by Congress’ General Accounting Office that criticized federal security screeners at airports and safety assessments at nuclear power plants.

Ridge said the GAO is typically critical, and that internal controls at airports and power plants indicated that security is tighter than it’s ever been.

Since federal screeners took over at airports, millions of weapons have been confiscated and air travel has never been safer, while U.S. inspections of power plants revealed they are strong enough to withstand an airplane crash, he said.

“The GAO wants us to be perfect. That is our goal. We’re good and we’re getting better, but I’m not sure we’ll ever be perfect,” Ridge said.


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