US creates terrorist fingerprint database
(Page 2 of 2)
In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which instructs DHS to develop a single standard for all state-issued driver's licenses and identification cards. The ID is expected to include a biometric identifier. Many experts say the most likely candidate will be a fingerprint.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
If adopted, that action would create for the first time a government database of fingerprints of virtually every adult American citizen. "This could come home to Americans very, very quickly," Rotenberg says.
Privacy advocates say they are hopeful that the new Democratic Congress will exert an aggressive oversight posture and study the implications of the fingerprint program before it is in place.
They point to the case of Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield.
The case began in mid-March 2004, shortly after terrorist bombs ripped through commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, killing 191 people and injuring 1,400. After the attacks, Spanish authorities found fingerprints on a plastic bag with detonators.
The FBI ran the prints through its computer system and found no matches, but identified several close nonmatches. Mr. Mayfield was the fourth of 20 close nonmatches.
Three FBI fingerprint examiners studied the Madrid fingerprint, and concluded that it had been made by Mayfield.
Mayfield's print was in the FBI's database because he had served in the armed forces and had earlier been charged with a crime.
FBI investigators learned that Mayfield had converted to Islam and had married an Egyptian immigrant. He also had served as the attorney in a custody case for a man who was convicted of conspiring to aid the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Justice Department officials say this information was unknown to the three examiners when they matched Mayfield's print to the Madrid bombing.
Spanish officials had their doubts about the match. They rejected the FBI's conclusion and continued to investigate.
The FBI dismissed the skepticism of Spanish authorities. One official in the investigation wrote: "I spoke with the lab this morning and they are absolutely confident that they have a match on the print. No doubt about it!!!! They will testify in any court you swear them into."
The FBI began surveilling Mayfield and his family, including covertly entering his home and office. Mayfield was arrested and held in prison for two weeks.
Concerned about the possibility of a mistake, a federal judge ordered an independent analysis of the fingerprint. That analyst also concluded that the print belonged to Mayfield.
That same day, Spanish authorities identified an Algerian man as the real source of the fingerprint.
Eventually, the FBI retracted its earlier conclusion. Last month the Justice Department agreed to pay Mayfield a $2 million settlement and issued a formal apology.
The Justice Department Inspector General's review of the case earlier this year warned about using a large database like the FBI's. "The enormous size of the (FBI) database and the power of the ... program can find a confusingly similar candidate print," the report says.
Mayfield says he was singled out because of his Muslim faith.
The Justice Department concluded that the fingerprint examiners were not aware that Mayfield was a Muslim with a connection to a convicted Al Qaeda supporter when they made the initial match. But later the examiners became aware of those facts, contributing to the FBI's reluctance to investigate whether they had fingered an innocent man, according to the Justice Department review.
Asked about the Mayfield case after his Nov. 30 speech, Chertoff acknowledged that mistakes had been made. But he added that mistakes are made in the criminal justice system, and no one suggests repealing the criminal code.
"We should make our techniques better but we shouldn't throw the whole process out because there are inevitable mistakes," he said.