Meet PISCES: the US broader control system

Azra Naseem

United States former Ambassador to the Maldives, Robert Blake has stated categorically that the US is ‘absolutely not’ planning a ‘base of any kind’ in the Maldives.

Enlightening the ignorant, he said Status of Force Agreements (SOFAs) are pretty standard, and harmless – any fool would know that. Asked for a comment on the draft SOFA published on Dhivehi Sitee last week, Blake said he had ‘not seen it’ and was thus ‘unable to verify its authenticity.’

Blake was US Ambassador to Maldives when she rushed to welcome Mohamed Waheed’s presidency in February 2012, helping to define a televised coup as a legitimate transfer of power.

Let’s take the diplomatic doublespeak at face value and accept that the US-Maldives SOFA is about bringing democracy and great ‘American values’ to the backward Maldivian shores. Let’s presume it’s not about an agreement that draws us deeper into the dirty wars of twenty first century America. Let’s assume that Lily Pads are nothing but lotus leaves serenely floating on a still pond. And, let’s suppose, despite recent headlines, that American plans for South Asia are vastly different from their plans for Africa and other ‘unlit spaces‘ of the world.

Instead, let’s look at the generosity of this ‘greatest nation on earth’ towards the Maldives. Last week she donated US$2.5 million donation to help Maldivians vote in September this year.

And, on 28 March, it gifted the country with a border control system, called the PISCES, entirely free of charge.

Given the Maldives’ place on the higher tiers of the global human trafficking industry, and it’s ongoing problems with installing a border control system, getting an entire system–including installation and training for personnel running it–for free, is a great blessing.

Or is it?

What is the PISCES?

Maldives post-coup Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim introduced the PISCES — Personal Identification, Secure Comparison and Evaluation System– to Maldivians as a ‘state of the art’ sophisticated border control system installed at all major points of entry and exit points in the US as well as in another twenty or so ‘advanced countries’ of the world.

Speaking in Dhivehi at a joint press conference with US Ambassador Michelle J Sison, Minister Nazim also told journalists the border control system would ‘increase security and the economic and social well-being of the Maldives.’

What interests me as much as Nazim said about the PISCES is what he left unsaid. He did not mention, for example, that the PISCES was built, and is operated, not so much as an immigration/emigration control mechanism as a top intelligence weapon in the endless War on Terror.

The US description, as published by the Bush-era State Department’s online archive, describes it somewhat differently from Nazim:

The Terrorist Interdiction Program seeks to constrain terrorist mobility globally by helping countries at risk from terrorist activity enhance their border security capabilities. TIP provides participating countries with a computerized watchlisting system known as PISCES (Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System). Countries are identified for eligibility to participate in TIP based on known terrorist activity or transit, need for a watchlisting system, and political will to cooperate with the United States in counterterrorism efforts.

Although Nazim alluded to the importance of intelligence gathering mechanisms and intelligence sharing among allies in ‘an increasingly dangerous world’, he deliberately omitted from his carefully rehearsed speech the fact that the Memorandum of Intention that he signed puts US in control of all the data mined by the PISCES.

‘We don’t have to share any information gathered from the system with anybody that the Maldivian government does not want to,’ said Nazim. The US, as supplier, installer and operator of the system is, of course, not on the list of countries the Maldives will or can shun.

Nazim also failed to mention that the so-called ‘advanced countries’ at which he said the PISCES was installed is actually a list of countries which the United States has ear-marked as popular transit points for dangerous terrorists.

Since 2002 the US has installed the PISCES at close to 200 entry/exit points in 18 countries—among them Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, the Philippines, Tunisia, Yemen, Morocco and Niger—willing (or unable to reject) the system since the Bush administration began pushing it in 2002. Worldwide, it now screens and gathers information on 250,000 travellers a day.

The PISCES experience of several countries contains valuable lessons for the Maldives. In 2011 Pakistan decided to discontinue the PISCES and replaced it with its own system, refusing US$42 million the US offered to have the PISCES upgraded instead.

Throughout the years in which PISCES was operated in Pakistan, her government denied all reports that US has access to all data gathered through PISCES, including this 2004 Times of India exposé describing how the PISCES had enabled ‘the unshakeable grip of a million American tentacles that have an all pervading grip on Pakistan’s present and future.’

Despite the denials, when Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Additional Director-General of Immigration, Chaudhry Mohammad Manzoor, announced the Pakistani government’s ‘inflexible’ decision to replace the PISCES, it was clear –as reported in The Express Tribune in June 2011— ‘the government’s rejection of PISCES stems from fears that the database is accessible to the Americans.’

Since the software will be indigenously developed by FIA, the integrity of data will be secured as opposed to foreign software and database, whose source codes are not disclosed to Pakistanis. This will help in maintaining vital data to national security.” It [documents proposing new system] adds: “Due to the sensitive nature of the project, it is imperative that data be secure and administered only by Pakistanis.

Had Pakistan been the only country to encounter problems with the PISCES, she could have been easily dismissed as part of another episode tide in the ever-vaciallting US-Pakistani goodwill.Fact is, the PISCES has proved troublesome in several other ‘host countries’.

This vital information was also missing from Nazim’s ‘explanation’. It is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility that Minister Nazim, with no experience or knowledge of international relations, is ignorant of such matters. The same cannot be said about the US. She knows full well the inherent shortcomings of the PISCES.

As an example, here’s what US Ambassador to Senegal, Janic L. Jacobs had to say about PISCES, in a classified diplomatic cable in 2003:

The “American Way” is not always indigenously sustainable in West Africa.  As an example, the Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (PISCES), a high-tech, computer based immigration tracking system was first deployed in 2003.  The concept was to determine exactly who was transiting the international airport.  The program was discontinued at the end of FY-2006.  The GOS immigration officials responsible for using the system were plagued by software and hardware problems that required frequent visits by maintenance teams from CONUS. Often the problems were minor, but the users lacked the technical competency to resolve them.  In the end, after spending several hundreds of thousands of dollars, funding for the program was terminated.  As we proceed with other high-tech solutions to facilitate the regional sharing of intelligence, we need to assure that long-term maintenance and training are addressed.  If we do not address the issue of sustainability during the program design phase, it will most likely fail.

In the rest of the world, Malta is the only EU country to have agreed to the intrusive PISCES, while in Kosovo, the system was found to be incompatible with EU standards and replaced.

The US government and its national security apparatus is well aware that most of the Maldivian population almost as ignorant of its destructive foreign policies as the American population. Combine this with the absence of political leaders to stand up for sovereignty and people’s civil rights, and the US has found in the Maldives a most conducive environment in which to pursue its all important ‘South Asia Pivot’. Regardless of what that may mean to Maldives.

What does it mean for the Maldives?

The easy manner in which the Maldives has signed away to the United States integrity of all the data it collects on travellers in and out of the Maldives raises major issues of sovereignty and civil rights, to which the current government pays no heed.

Apart from these concerns, according to some experts, the PISCES will slow down and hinder the border services the Maldives currently provides. Here’s a simple example: Immigration officials currently process travellers at an average speed of one every 15-25 seconds. The PISCES will slow this down to between 60 and 90 seconds.

There are much more serious problems—PISCES does not allow integration with some of the most vital components of border control such as issuing visas and work-permits. How such a system prove to be adequate to the border control needs of a country which relies on the tourism industry for its survival, and is battling with international pressure to properly address its escalating human trafficking problems?

The PISCES’ inadequacies should not really be surprising, a system purpose-built for monitoring everybody travelling through a dangerous ‘terrorist hub’ cannot also be expected to smilingly grant tourist visas and diligently screen thousands of poor Bangladeshi labourers and hundreds of South East Asian girls for signs of trafficking.

The question is: why is the Maldives government allowing the US this complete takeover of its borders?

The ousting of Nexbis

The Maldives’ attempts to secure its borders have been plagued by disputes and legal issues. Nexbis, the company which, right until the time Minister Nazim announced his agreement with the US, was under contract to develop and install  a border control system for the Maldives, has long been alleging ‘criminal sabotage‘ of its contract by certain elements with different interests. [The long-running Nexbis issue is covered well by Minivan News.]

But, as with the treatment of GMR in the airport dispute, and the recent ousting of Hilton from the Maldivian tourism industry, the government insists all is being done ‘for the good of the country.’

Take some time to look at the two documents I have come into possession, comparing the various features that would become available to Maldivian border control personnel through the two systems:

When we look at what the two systems offer, the purpose of each is clear. The purpose of the PISCES is to gather intelligence for the United States’ ever-expanding intelligence network in the War on Terror. It lacks the ability to provide some of the most indispensable border control services for Maldives while it comes free of charge in the other.

At the press conference, Nazim also told local journalists that PISCES can be integrated with the India’s Advanced Passenger Information System (PISA). Local Immigration sources contradict Nazim’s claim. An Immigration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said several experts—including those visiting from the US—told the government that ‘integration with the Indian system is not possible’.

Was Minister Nazim not just lying by omission but also through his teeth? Did he speak in Dhivehi so Ambassador Sison did not have to be seen to be party to the dissemination of misleading information?

As the United States has witnessed several times, it is rather easy to get the mainstream Maldivian Fourth Estate to stop asking questions. The criminal Armenian ‘Artur Brothers’ remain ‘at large’, not many questions asked. An unknown Armeninan cargo plane landed, unloaded its cargo and left, no questions asked. Blake’s ‘I haven’t seen it, therefore cannot I cannot verify it’ has sufficed as an explanation of the SOFA, no more questions asked. NGOs have duly put out their statement of concern relating to ‘reports about the SOFA’ and given the additional information that ‘there are American officials all over the Maldives making full socio-economic assessments’, no questions asked. If all goes to plan, PISCES will begin operation in the next two weeks, no questions asked.

Well, here are some: Does the PISCES meet Maldives’ border control needs? Why are Waheed, Nazim, Abdulla Riyaz and other key players eagerly signing control of our affairs and territory over to the United States? Did this level of US interest in the Maldives begin before or after 7 February 2012? Is the US interested enough to retain in place a government hand-picked by its officials for their willingness to sell Maldivian national interest for self-interest? Does Waheed’s inexplicable swagger in the face of obvious and patent unpopularity stem from the confidence of knowing he has the backing of the world’s only hyper-power?

If so, how far is the US prepared to go to win Maldives for itself in the upcoming September elections?



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