Fingerprinting Visitors

President Reagan's axiom for dealing with the Soviet Union - "trust, but verify" - has found a fitting new use in the Homeland Security Department.

This month, the HSD began digital fingerprinting and photographing of all new foreign visitors arriving at airports except those from countries not needing a visa to enter the US. Even visitors in that latter group will need to have passports with fingerprints embedded in them by Oct. 26.

Some 24 million passengers a year are expected to undergo such screening by what the government calls the US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT). Later this year, US border crossings between Canada and Mexico will be added to the program. So by the end of the year, all legal, international travelers entering and exiting the US will be required to have some form of fingerprint identification.

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Not only will they have their identity verified, they will be screened for any criminal background and also checked against terrorist watch lists.

The added inconvenience of waiting less than a minute to be fingerprinted and photographed seems minimal compared to the need for the US to prevent infiltration of Al Qaeda agents. The need now is to make sure privacy rights and human dignity are kept in balance with the US effort to secure its borders.

All passengers will need to be treated with respect, and of course, with the understanding that by far the vast majority of them are not criminals or terrorists. That approach should help convince countries skeptical of the program that such measures are necessary for now.

In not singling out individuals of a specific ethnic origin, this program is better than the National Security Entry Exit Registration System, a program that cast virtually every Middle Easterner as a possible suspect. That system was canceled last month.

Working out the kinks that often come with implementing any sweeping security changes obviously will take time. Yet many passengers already are expressing patience with the effort, even as they cheer the fact that the holiday season passed with no terrorist incident.

Officials can demonstrate wise use of new technology, and US citizens and foreign travelers can feel tangibly safer, without sacrificing precious freedoms.

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