CLARKSBURG, W.Va. - Here among the hills of West Virginia, a little-known complex materializes off an unmarked exit of Interstate 79, its glass facade, enormous buildings and perfect landscaping beckoning visitors to stop by.
The large visitors parking lot, though, is empty. So is the three-story, marble and flag-adorned lobby. And the guide manning the information console in the separate nearby visitors center and museum is the only person in that building.
The officials who run the facility want to keep it this way.
The complex is the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, a purposely colorless name that obscures its importance and its purpose. This 9-acre spread, replete with electronic surveillance and armed patrols on dirt bikes, houses the permanent criminal records of every American who has been convicted of a crime, as well as 46 million sets of fingerprints. It's called a biometric database. and it is the world's largest.
Each day the agency matches tens of thousands of fingerprints and runs millions of records checks to almost instantly provide electronic rap sheets and warrants to police officers across the country when they make an arrest or pull someone over. But now, as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks, the complex, with its 2,700-member, mostly civilian staff, is becoming the heart of the government's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks - and the division is bracing for the onslaught.
Almost every new government initiative, including revamping airport security, locating thousands of foreigners who have violated immigration laws and cross-checking visa applicants and tracking al-Qaida, is rooted in fingerprint identification and records checks.
"It has been a very busy year," said Michael Kirkpatrick, assistant director in charge of the services division. "9/11 affected us across the board. All of our numbers have gone way up. We've tried to find new ways to use our infrastructure to get information out to help prevent a terrorist attack. We've always had this technology but frankly, no one was using it."
Since the attacks last year, the facility has processed 20 percent more fingerprints each day than last year, or almost 70,000 a day. Staff members have studied the fingerprints of everyone captured fighting in Afghanistan, become "real familiar" with the histories of the 19 hijackers and those detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and dispatched a team of experts last fall to take the fingerprints of thousands of people fleeing across the Afghan border into Pakistan during the war.
But mostly they have been flooded with requests from the federal government. New laws require the review of every airports' employees' records and fingerprints by the thousands, while another mandate has ordered the State Department to similarly screen every new visa applicant.
Now the Bush administration and officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service are discussing creation of a border entry and exit system that would be based on fingerprint identification and require instant checks of millions of foreigners coming into and out of the country every day.
'Swamped' by requests
States nationwide have also been requiring an increasing number of employees and agency workers to be screened with background and fingerprint checks. West Virginia even recently required public school teachers to undergo records and fingerprint checks.
"We have been swamped," said Billy Martin, acting chief of the fingerprint division.
But despite the new dependence on the division for its fingerprint screening and criminal records, the facility has also found itself at the center of calls for government agencies to better share information.
For the CIA, FBI, State Department, INS and local law enforcement agencies to spot terrorists, they must be able to access and cross-reference their information with the records in the facility's mainframe computers.
While FBI bureaus across the country and its headquarters in Washington have been struggling with outdated computers for years, this complex has some of the fastest equipment on the market, which has kept its staff on top of the demand.
Usually the facility can determine someone's identity from his fingerprints, pull a criminal history if there is one and send the information back to the requesting officer or agency within 15 seconds.
Just three years ago, before the facility launched its new computer system, every fingerprint card had to be reviewed by hand, a process that took months. The division could check fingerprints against only those of suspects they had identified to see whether they matched. Fingerprint cards were strewn throughout the building as employees battled a backlog of more than 1 million prints.
Because so much of the information the facility provides has the potential to finger criminals and sidetrack the job searches of citizens once convicted of crimes, the complex has always been vigilant, wary of an attack. In 1996, undercover agents dismantled a plot by the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia to blow it up.
These days officials worry that terrorists might have similar plans. If the database is gone, identifying a terrorist at the border or abroad becomes almost impossible.
Keeping 'a low profile'
The databases are stored underground in a room the size of a football field, though they are backed up in a secret remote location. The facility can run on generators if power is lost and large armed security forces patrol the perimeter on four-wheel-drive vehicles in addition to manning dirt bikes.
"We've been trying to keep a low profile about who we are and what we do," said Stephen Fischer, division spokesman.
"We've been very involved since 9/11 in the investigation," he said as he walked along a spotless marble foyer devoid of tourists, though the site is technically open to the public and school groups. "We don't want to stand on a rooftop and shout that out or say how."
One of the ways that isn't a secret, though, is the division's efforts at the World Trade Center in the days after the attacks. A group of fingerprint identifiers and a shipment of some of the division's most advanced equipment were dispatched to New York to help identify those missing.
"At first we were all waiting, we thought we were going to be hit with an enormous number of bodies," Charles Jones, a fingerprint examiner and instructor, said as he sat at a computer reviewing fingerprints. "We identified about six people. But then it was like we hit a wall. There were no more bodies.
"We were lucky in most cases to have one finger - we were getting nothing," he said. "We were all very frustrated. Eventually we just came home."
In the basement beneath the facility, computer mainframes line the room. As technology has improved, with devices becoming smaller and more efficient, the space has become roomier.
Joseph Mazzie, supervisor of the data center, eyes his computers critically, making sure all are blinking and whirring properly. He points to one large database called a tape silo, which records every request that comes into the facility, and says proudly that it caught Timothy J. McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.
Agents had pinpointed Mc- Veigh as the bomber but could not find him. They issued a warrant and ran his name through the tape silo to see whether another agent or officer had requested a check on him recently for something unrelated.
It turned out that an Oklahoma officer had pulled Mc- Veigh over the day before for speeding and had run his name and license plates to check for warrants. Agents called the patrol officer and found that Mc Veigh was still in custody in the county jail, accused of carrying a concealed weapon in his car, and was about to be released.
The databases have also solved hundreds of "cold cases." Recently, detectives from New Orleans sent in fingerprints from a 25-year-old homicide, and they matched a pair belonging to a man in the database. He was arrested.
"This is the permanent record card you never want to be in," Mazzie said. "There are only three ways to get out. You get acquitted, you turn 99, or you die. If you are 18 and older and have committed a crime, it's in here. We have it. And we have it for good."