UK terrorism revelations spark visa waiver worries

  • Recurring revelations that terrorists of European nationality plan to attack the US have intensified concerns the Visa Waiver Program poses excessive risks for US homeland security.
  • Abolishing the programme would cost the US economy billions of dollars in lost business, increase the burden on already overwhelmed US visa officers and damage US relations with major foreign allies in the war on terrorism.
  • Limited improvements in the programme would maintain the benefits while considerably reducing security problems.

Recurring reports about the radicalisation of some of Europe's Muslim citizens, as well as indications that terrorist groups have recruited non-Muslim nationals from countries in the US Visa Waiver Program, have intensified concerns that it provides a loophole through which terrorists can infiltrate the US.

When Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of the UK's Security Services, told a London audience in November 2006 that British-based terrorists were plotting some 30 attacks, her remarks attracted a transatlantic audience.

The Visa Waiver Program currently allows the citizens of 27 countries, mostly in Europe and Asia, to enter the US for purposes of tourism or business for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. Congress established the programme in 1986 to remove unnecessary travel barriers, stimulate tourism, fortify relations with friendly countries and save the government money by allowing Department of State consular officers to focus attention on nationals from higher-risk visa applicant pools. Many of these goals have been accomplished. In recent years, approximately half of all non-immigrant admissions to the US have been through the Visa Waiver Program. Their travel has generated significant revenue for the tourism industry.

Screening problems

Despite its benefits, the Visa Waiver Program poses considerable risks for US homeland security. Not requiring a visa results in a less thorough screening process for entry into the US. Customs and border protection officers based at US points of entry typically do not have time to conduct extensive interviews. However, consular officers also have more time to conduct screening interviews and evaluate travel documents.

A September report from the Government Accountability Office faulted the US Department of Homeland Security for failing to establish specific deadlines or operating procedures for foreign countries to report the theft of blank, lost, or stolen travel documents. In particular, the US Department of Homeland Security had yet to issue guidelines about in what manner, to who, or how rapidly foreign governments should report this data. The Government Accountability Office also noted that, for technical reasons, US border inspectors at primary inspection points still could not access Interpol's database of lost and stolen travel documents.

During a subsequent hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security, Paul Rosenzweig from the US Department of Homeland Security testified that the department planned to issue new protocols by 30 April about how EU countries should report lost and stolen passports to US authorities. Mr Rosenzweig said the new standards would specify reporting deadlines and ask that each EU government establish a round-the-clock point of contact to allow border agents to inquire immediately about any suspect documents. He also said the Department of Homeland Security would need about a year to introduce technological upgrades that would allow border inspectors to access Interpol data at primary inspection points - and then only at airports. Given the time needed to implement and refine any new rules, technologies and procedures, many observers consider this too slow.

Pressures for expansion

The Visa Waiver Program has had mixed effects on US relations with other countries. It has definitely strengthened tourism and commercial ties between the US and Visa Waiver Program members. Millions of their nationals enter the US each year to visit, shop and conduct other business. The obligation to undergo periodic national reviews also promotes US security goals by encouraging Visa Waiver Program countries to strengthen their entry and exit policies.

At the same time, the programme has become a major source of irritation for many countries deemed ineligible. The leaders of the East European countries that joined NATO and the EU several years ago wonder why they remain excluded from it. South Korea and Taiwan argue their longstanding commercial and security ties with the US warrant their inclusion. The issue of the Visa Waiver Program regularly occupies a prominent place on the agenda whenever East European and Asian heads of state meet with US President George W Bush. Bush and other US officials have cited reasons why, under the right conditions, they might want to expand the programme further. They have acknowledged that most of these countries have strengthened their visa and immigration requirements, co-operated with US law enforcement agencies and supported other dimensions of US foreign policy. They have also stressed the importance of encouraging US tourism, foreign language training and academic exchanges to promote a better global understanding of the US and counter perceptions that the US is culturally insensitive or indifferent.

In February 2005, the administration announced that the US would negotiate 'road maps' for countries seeking to become Visa Waiver Program participants. The move apparently aimed to assuage programme aspirants without actually offering them membership in the programme. Since then, nine European countries - the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Slovakia - have had discussions with few concrete results. In addition, the May 2006 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, passed by the Senate but not the House of Representatives, sought to favour Visa Waiver Program applicants that, in addition to meeting the programme's criteria, had also provided 'material support' to the US-led military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The way ahead

These initiatives have failed because many members of Congress and US officials fear that expanding participation in the programme much further would entail excessive security risks. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, no new country has become eligible for the Visa Waiver Program. Yet proposals to substantially curtail the programme on national security grounds have gained little support because of its clear benefits for achieving a range of US goals. A 2002 General Accounting Office report noted that abolishing the programme altogether would have, at best, ambivalent effects on US security, but would also probably involve major economic and diplomatic costs for the US including reducing tourism, increasing the expense of managing entry visas and damaging relations with countries whose co-operation is essential for achieving US goals in the global war on terrorism.

By taking steps to improve the programme, the US Department of Homeland Security could enhance support for it. A priority should be strengthening the review procedures used to assess how well existing members are implementing the programme. Providing additional resources to the Visa Waiver Program oversight unit and the US Department of Homeland Security Office of International Enforcement is an essential prerequisite for strengthening the review process. The US government needs to establish a centralised mechanism and strict guidelines for foreign governments to report information about lost and stolen travel documents. The Department of Homeland Security should accelerate plans to ensure that US customs and border patrol officers can access the Interpol database of fraudulent passports at their primary inspection stations.

The US can reduce visa-related tensions with foreign nations excluded from the programme by expanding opportunities for their citizens to obtain visas while they await their countries' possible future incorporation into the Visa Waiver Program. US officials could establish bilateral review groups to work with foreign governments to pursue mutually beneficial measures. Depending on the foreign partner, these steps could include initiatives to lower visa rejection rates, permit greater use of original language supporting documents, make arranging visa interviews easier, increase the number of US consular officers stationed in foreign localities, help host governments to produce more secure travel documents and expand the use of pre-screening techniques that would allow visa applicants to better assess their prospects before submitting formal applications.

Finally, the US could allow certain Visa Waiver Program aspirants to join the programme temporarily in order to gauge the extent to which its nationals sought to use visa waivers to plot terrorist attacks against the US or violate US immigration laws. Yet, countries that have most supported broad US counter-terrorism objectives as well as immigration goals could also receive priority for such trial status. Ideally, countries on Visa Waiver Program probation would have incentives to continue strengthening their entry-exit procedures, law enforcement policies, and counter-terrorism measures. To assist low-income countries in achieving these goals, the US might provide financial assistance to help their governments improve their passport security and subsidise their nationals' applications for US visas.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC

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ò The threat posed by the trade in stolen passports, Homeland Security Monitor, 1 June 2006

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