WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration on Friday defended its decision to postpone a plan to track foreign visitors as they leave the country by land. An incoming Senate Democratic committee chairwoman called for hearings on the delay.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he still intends to implement the tracking program, but the department currently does not have a viable system to track people crossing into Canada and Mexico by land.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who will chair the Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security, said in a statement that she was dismayed by the department’s decision.

“This failure, which follows on delay after delay since 1996, essentially means that there will be no exit-monitoring system at the nation’s 50 busiest land border crossings,” Feinstein said.

At a midday news conference, Chertoff said the department’s “priorities have been tailored to the highest risk.”

“The highest priority is to keep terrorists out of the country,” he said. “If we keep them out in the first place we don’t have to worry about them staying over.”

Chertoff’s comment followed a report by congressional investigators that said another five to 10 years will be needed to develop technology record and track travelers leaving the United States by land without major disruptions at border crossings.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, in an interview with The Associated Press, expressed surprise at the development, and said that the program’s former head, Jim Williams, had a pretty clear vision of where he thought the program had been headed.

In a report released Thursday, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the entry portion of the Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology program, known as US-VISIT, has been installed at most of the nation’s land borders with minimal disruption.

The entry portion of the program includes biometric features such as digital scans of fingerprints to identify foreign visitors to the U.S. Congress required the program following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to keep terrorists from entering the country.

However, the congressional mandate for a similar biometric exit program has not fared as well. The GAO, Congress’ auditing arm, found that implementing a biometrically based exit system similar to the entry system “would require new infrastructure, and would produce major traffic congestion because travelers would have to stop their vehicles upon exit to be processed – an option officials consider unacceptable.”

Chertoff said the department intends to implement an exit system for air travelers, focusing on foreigners who aren’t Mexican or Canadian. Keeping track of people who leave by land would come later, he said.

He said an exit program for people who cross U.S. borders by land, using current technology and facilities, could create traffic jams 10 to 15 miles long.

Homeland Security Department spokesman Jarrod Agen said the agency has been testing an exit program using radio frequency identification technology rather than biometrics. He said the department is evaluating the results of the RFID testing, including an economic analysis, to see if it would be feasible as an interim measure.

However, the GAO report found that there were performance and reliability problems with the RFID technology, in addition to the failure to meet the congressional mandate to use biometrics.

A more fundamental problem was that “the RFID tag in the visitor’s arrival/departure form cannot be physically tied to an individual, which means that while a document may be detected as leaving the country, the person to whom it was issued at time of entry may be somewhere else,” the report said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.