A Department of Homeland Security program intended to give "trusted traveler" status to low-risk airline passengers soon will be extended to Saudi travelers, opening the program to criticism for accommodating the country that produced 15 of the 19 hijackers behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Sources voiced concern about the decision to the Investigative Project on Terrorism, which issued a report Wednesday on the under-the-radar announcement -- which was first made by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano after meeting in January with her Saudi counterpart. According to the IPT, this would be the first time the Saudi government has been given such a direct role in fast-tracking people for entry into the United States.
"I think you have radical Wahhabism in certain elements in Saudi Arabia, and I think to be more lenient there than in other places would be a mistake," Rep. Frank Wolf told the Investigative Project on Terrorism. "There were 15 [hijackers] from that country, and there is a lot taking place in that region."
Only an exclusive handful of countries enjoy inclusion in the Global Entry program -- Canada, Mexico, South Korea and the Netherlands. According to the IPT, some officials are questioning why Saudi Arabia gets to reap the benefits of the program, when key U.S. allies like Germany and France are not enrolled; Israel has reached a deal with the U.S., but that partnership has not yet been implemented.
Any Saudi travelers cleared through the program will be able to bypass the normal customs line after providing passports and fingerprints. The status lasts for five years.
The decision is a turnaround, the IPT notes, from when Saudi Arabia was briefly placed on a list of countries whose U.S.-bound travelers would face higher scrutiny, in the wake of the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt in 2009.
But Napolitano spoke highly of "the bond between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" when she announced the change in January.
"By enhancing collaboration with the government of Saudi Arabia, we reaffirm our commitment to more effectively secure our two countries against evolving threats while facilitating legitimate trade and travel," Napolitano said.
The Global Entry program was launched in 2008 to expedite pre-approved passengers through the airport customs and security process when they arrive in the U.S. The program is designed to weed out low-risk passengers and enable authorities to zero in on those who may be more likely to pose a threat.
But the program has sparked controversy in the past. Critics objected in late 2010 when Mexican citizens were included in the program, raising concerns that drug cartels would quickly learn how to exploit loopholes in the plan. DHS officials, however, insisted at the time that people who attain trusted traveler status don't get a free pass and are still subject to random searches.
The program allows travelers who have undergone a thorough vetting process -- fingerprinting, background checks, interviews with customs agents, etc.-- to attain a low-risk status that allows them to skip the line at customs and complete their entry process at an automatic kiosk.