WASHINGTON – Shortcomings in the Homeland Security Department's implementation of a program that allows foreigners to enter the United States without visas have created potential security risks, the agency's inspector general said Tuesday.
"One ... official described the (program) as being `on autopilot, in an orphan status, with no designated manager or overseer,'" the office of inspector general Clark Kent Ervin said in the report.
The program has had a series of acting managers in the department and has been run by various officials who share responsibilities, the report said. In addition, it said, many workers within the agency are unsure who is in charge.
Disorganization and floundering management have prevented the agency from collecting good information on lost and stolen passports from participating countries and from avoiding their use by people who could be security risks, the report said. It also has affected biennial reviews of participating countries to determine whether they can continue in the program.
A copy of the findings were given to Homeland Security in March, but the agency did not provide a written response.
The visa-waiver program (search) has been hotly debated in Congress since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Some critics have called it a loophole in border security that potential terrorists could exploit. Citizens of the 27 mostly European countries that participate in the program can travel to the United States without visas. Americans have the same waiver when they travel to any of the countries.
Homeland Security spokesman Dennis Murphy said many of the problems raised in the report are in the process of being corrected or have been corrected. He said reviews of participating countries are under way and should be completed by Sept. 30.
The visa-waiver program is overseen by Stewart Verdery (search), a Homeland Security assistant secretary in charge of border and transportation security policy, Murphy said.
The inspector general made 14 recommendations to improve the program. No. 1 was to designate a visa-waiver program manager with clearly defined responsibilities and authority.
It also recommended that the agency require citizens of visa-waiver countries to be fingerprinted and photographed through the US-VISIT (search) process when they travel to America. US-VISIT has been operating since January at major U.S. airports and seaports. The Homeland Security Department announced last month it was expanding the system to include travelers from visa-waiver countries.
"The purpose of this report was not to make a determination whether the program was good policy or not," Ervin said. "All we're saying is there are vulnerabilities in the program, and one of the tools to close the vulnerability is the application of US-VISIT program. "
Other findings include that the visa-waiver program does not have enough money, workers are not trained well enough to detect visa-waiver passport fraud, and inspectors often are required to return fraudulent passports to travelers, even those denied entry.
Murphy said policies on returning documents to people denied entry often are subject to bilateral agreements.
In a separate report released Monday, the General Accounting Office (search) urged Homeland Security to improve management of the US-VISIT program, including testing of the system. The GAO, Congress' investigative arm, said Homeland Security did not fully test the system, begun in January, until the system already was operating.
The GAO also said that the agency's estimates on how much money and staff it would need to expand US-VISIT to major land ports by the end of this year are based on questionable assumptions that make future needs uncertain. The GAO said the department agreed with all its recommendations.