Visa Waiver Program May Let in the Good, and the Bad

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U.S. passports are supposed to contain computer chips in them starting in December as part of an overall effort to prevent forgeries that could allow terrorists to slip through border controls.

The tamperproof computer chips affixed to the new passports will contain data already found on the inside of the ID: name, date of birth, gender, place of birth, dates of passport issuance and expiration, passport number, and a photo.

The intent is to create a high-tech travel document that can prevent unauthorized "skimming" of personal information. But the electronic passport is not a new idea in the United States.

The U.S. passport changes mimic those already demanded by the United States of several other nations who were told to have in place machine-readable passports (search) by June 26, 2005, if they want their citizens to gain entry to this country.

These machine-readable passports have a sequence of lines at the bottom that can be swiped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the U.S. destination to confirm the passport holder's identity and to obtain other information about the traveler that's usually found inside the passport.

While the passport requirements have been a long time in the making, recent events in London have demonstrated all the more clearly what the United States is hoping to avoid by implementing the additional technology.

"The problem is, British subjects do not need visas to come into the United States. They get on an airplane," said former CIA officer Bob Baer, author of "See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism."

"They could fly into New York, a local could procure the acetone and set off a bomb in New York City. We would be none the wiser," he said.

The bombers who killed 56 people in the subways and on a bus in London on July 7 were British citizens. Some analysts speculate that the terrorists could nearly as easily have carried out their attacks on American soil because the Visa Waiver Program administered by the U.S. government allows residents of participating countries to enter this country without a visa.

The July 7 bombers would not be the first citizens of so-called "friendly countries" who are not always friendly to their home countries nor likely would be so to the United States. Among known and suspected terrorists detained in the United States, several have come from visa waiver countries.

So-called "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid (search) was a British citizen. Admitted Al Qaeda member Zacarias Moussaoui (search), once accused of being the "20th hijacker" in the Sept. 11 attacks, is a citizen of France, another member of the VWP.

Still, U.S. government officials stand by the Visa Waiver Program and say they are moving to ensure that even without a visa, visitors with tamperproof passports can verify that they are who they say they are.

"The Visa Waiver Program is one that we've been working on even prior to the bombings in London, taking more precautions as far as making sure there are secured documents for all these people coming through the Visa Waiver Program," said Jarrod Agen, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Technology Aids the Making of 'Fortress America'

The VWP, established in 1986, allows nationals from 27 countries — including Great Britain, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, Singapore, Portugal, Italy, and Japan — to enter the United States without a visa, meaning they don't have to sit through a one-on-one interview in their home country with a consular officer and get U.S. government-approved entry before traveling here.

Over 15 million VWP travelers enter the United States each year. These days, each of them is enrolled in the US-VISIT program upon arriving in the United States. As part of US-VISIT (search), all foreign travelers with visas or passports are fingerprinted and photographed at major U.S. airports and seaports. Their information is then checked against databases to ensure documents are legitimate and that the visitor's name doesn't appear on any terror watch lists.

"Those are some of the steps taken to make sure the Visa Waiver Program (search) is a safe and effective way to letting people get into the United States, because obviously we don't want to choke off travel here altogether," Agen said.

Another measure in the works to up VWP security is increasing the advance time required for airlines to send their passenger manifests to security officials as part of the Advance Passenger Information System.

Airlines currently only have to send in their manifests within 15 minutes of departure, which means planes can be in the air before the information has been reviewed by U.S. officials on the ground. If a passenger on board raises red flags, a plane may be diverted.

"To just keep any kind of terrorist or suspected terrorist off the plane initially, that obviously is our No. 1 goal. Getting that information ahead of time can effectively do that," said Agen, who added that the timeframe is still in the drafting stages.

Other steps — as of October of this year, foreign passports must include a digital photo of the traveler. In October 2006, passports must contain a biometric chip that carries personal information about the traveler, including the digital photo.

The Department of Homeland Security was hosting a conference this summer with VWP countries to address the technological issues that come with the new "e-passports."

"The data storage on the chip could include all three of those — your face, your fingerprint or your iris ... so when you present yourself to get into another country, you will be required to present your biometric to make sure the holder of the passport is the same person as who's on the passport," said Bill Willis, senior vice president of technology and business development for ImageWare (IW), a company involved in US-VISIT and the International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets guidelines for worldwide travel documents.

"I believe you'll see over the next two years or so, upward of 40 countries that will adopt the new electronic passport with biometrics (search)," Willis added.

Supporters of the policy say that making sure passports contain biometric data will allow airport personnel to quickly verify the identity of the traveler and enable airlines to see more clearly — and quickly — who may pose a threat.

"The best system is fortress America," former FBI agent and Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating said, adding that ensuring that passports and other documents are "the most sophisticated — they cannot be forged … that is a challenge for the State Department and Homeland Security."

While the new passports are a great step, "unfortunately, the sophistication level is not as high as it should be," Keating added. "The possibility of people coming in from the 27 [VWP] countries — Spain, Germany, France, the U.K. — obviously countries where there are radical Islamists, is very real and worrisome."

Only as Strong as the Fence

Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that the VWP countries aren't doing thorough enough background searches. Without the added diligence, information on potential terrorists could be left off a watch list or other database.

Several people familiar with the program also pointed out that the London bombings highlight a different kind of problem: If the bombers didn't have any suspicious history, they likely wouldn't have shown up on a watch list even if they had been subject to a visa interview or if their names were checked against terror databases.

"We didn't know who [the July 7 bombers] were. They didn't come up on any screen. ... They could have easily gotten into this country and carried out an attack here," Baer said.

Critics say that loophole is all the more reason to re-institute the one-on-one interview process that VWP countries now avoid.

"I kind of think of it as a house — putting a gate around the house is the visa," said Michael W. Cutler, who worked as a special agent for the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service. Cutler noted that the strength of a fence determines whether someone can get to the house.

"To say that we want to make sure that people from different countries are properly scrutinized before we give them admission to our country — to me that's common sense — we look through the peephole of our door before we let anybody in don't we?"

Some lawmakers like Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., voiced concern about the VWP after the London bombings. Prior to July 7, the House Homeland Security Committee held hearings on biometrics passports to determine just how far along VWP countries are getting up to par with security requirements. Lawmakers pointed out that the Sept. 11 commission's report highlighted that terrorists travel in part by exploiting travel documents.

"Strengthening document security and our ability to verify travelers' identity is essential if we are to prevent terrorists' easy access to America," said Rep. Daniel Lungren, R-Calif. "Information sharing between governments is thus a critical layer in our security system."

Cutler, currently a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said visa fraud is the easiest crime to slap on terror suspects as prosecutors try to gather more evidence against them. Without that legal option, fewer remedies are available to try to nab terrorists before they execute their missions.

"We all know that Al Capone didn't go to jail for murder, racketeering … all of those crimes. Ultimately, he went to jail for tax evasion," Cutler said. "The visa process would help scrutinize who we're admitting … [otherwise], we leave ourselves far more vulnerable to the potential terrorists who could come here."