Thomas Frank / USA TODAY – 2007-07-14 20:37:26
BAGHDAD — The US military is taking fingerprints and eye scans from thousands of Iraqi men and building an unprecedented database that helps track suspected militants.
US troops are stopping Iraqis at checkpoints, workplaces and sites where attacks have recently occurred, and inputting their personal data using handheld scanners or specially equipped laptops. In several neighborhoods in and around Baghdad, troops have gone door to door collecting data.
The rapidly expanding program has raised privacy concerns at the Pentagon, although it has met little resistance from Iraqis. US commanders say the data help to keep suspected militants out of neighborhoods and to identify suspects in attacks against US troops and Iraqi civilians. Iraq has no other reliable ID system.
“It helps enormously,” Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, said in an interview. “It enables us to identify individuals connected with various activities.”
This year, US troops in Iraq are to receive 3,800 handheld scanners, up from 200 now in use, to equip every squad in the country, said Col. Michael Meese, an adviser to Petraeus. The devices can both collect and display data, letting troops view someone’s background and decide whether he should be detained.
“If we see some guy at the site of a blast or a shooting, we put him in the database,” said Capt. John Henry Moltz of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. “If we find he’s at every blast, now we’ve got probable cause to question him.”
The program recently expanded to the Baghdad area after beginning in 2004 in Anbar province. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis there submitted fingerprint and iris scans — also known as biometric data — and were given ID cards to present at checkpoints. “This is about denying insurgents access to the communities,” Lt. Col. Jeff Smitherman said.
From 5,000 to 10,000 Baghdad residents have been scanned since March, said Capt. Curtis Kellogg, a military spokesman. Military units in Baghdad are starting to give ID cards to police and security workers.
Each handheld scanner costs $6,500 and can store records of up to 10,000 people. Information is downloaded from the scanners and forwarded to a central database, Meese said.
The main database also includes records of Iraqis who have been detained or who work in US facilities or for the Iraqi army or police. The data are compared to fingerprints lifted from the scenes of roadside bombings and other attacks to find potential suspects.
Using fingerprints and eye scans to find suspicious people is “the bane of privacy advocates,” the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon research arm, said in a March report. Military use of such data can be particularly invasive because it creates government databases of private citizens, the report said.
Iraqis who refuse to give data can be barred from neighborhoods or markets that require an ID for entry. But “virtually nobody refuses,” Meese said.
Fayath Abas, 41, said he didn’t mind giving his fingerprints at a checkpoint in Fallujah. “We can find out who is bad and who is good,” he said.