Tracking Visitors to the US

Just two months after 9/11, assistant US attorney general Michael Chertoff spoke to Congress about the difficulties in tracking suspected terrorists: "It's more difficult than looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, because in this instance, the needle comes in disguise, disguised as a stalk of hay." Indeed, terror has no face.

But when each of the 19 hijackers turned out to be Middle Eastern men, what was the government to do? Well, among other things, it asked some 5,000 men of Middle Eastern descent to come in for questioning.

This week, the Justice Department said it plans to start fingerprinting and tracking long-staying visitors from Middle Eastern or mainly Muslim nations, especially those deemed to harbor or support terrorists.

This sort of nationality profiling is a broad-stroke precaution against future terrorist attacks. Since the new rules are based on country of origin, government officials should be careful not to base their actions on race, religion, or ethnicity.

But the plan hardly begins to reform the nation's screening and tracking of visitors. The best way to stop would-be criminals is to thoroughly investigate them before they are given visas. Much more reform and resources are needed in the visa-issuing offices of US embassies.

Fingerprinting and registering foreign visitors is nothing new in most countries. A 1952 US law allowing it hasn't been used since the early 1980s, when the number of visa holders grew substantially.

The new screening system, which would take effect in the fall, should help the government eventually keep track of all 35 million annual visitors to the US. But it's doubtful that such safeguards would stop Al Qaeda or other such groups.

Still, the Justice Department has added one more plank in the new Fortress America. It needs many more besides this one.

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