Bush will urge Congress to widen visa waiver priv­i­lege

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Stephen Di­nan

TALLINN, Es­to­nia — Pres­i­dent Bush on Nov. 28 said he will push Congress for a “loos­en­ing” of re­quire­ments for for­eign­ers to visit the United States with­out a visa, pit­ting him against those who have called for the pro­gram in­stead to be tight­ened or even scrapped al­to­gether af­ter Septem­ber 11.

TheVisaWaiverPro­gra­mal­lows vis­i­tors with valid pass­ports from 27 ap­proved coun­tries to en­ter the United States for up to 90 days with­out a visa. That makes tourism and busi­ness travel eas­ier by elim­i­nat­ing the need for a visa, though such trav­el­ers can avoid a se­cu­rity screen­ing.

Af­ter meet­ing with Es­to­nian Pres­i­dent Toomas Hen­drik Ilves in Tallinn, Mr. Bush said he will press Congress to re­vamp the pro­gram to al­low more coun­tries to join.

“I’m go­ing to work with our Congress and our in­ter­na­tional part­ners to mod­ify our Visa Waiver Pro­gram,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s a way to make sure that na­tions like Es­to­nia qual­ify more quickly for the pro­gram and, at the same time, strengthen the pro­gram’s se­cu­rity com­po­nents.”

But the pro­posed ex­pan­sion would run athwart con­cerns that the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity (DHS) can­not keep up with the 27 coun­tries al­ready ap­proved, as the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice (GAO), Congress’ in­ves­tiga­tive branch, found in a July re­port.

“DHS can­not ef­fec­tively mon­i­tor the law en­force­ment and se­cu­rity risks posed by visa waiver coun­tries on a con­sis­tent, on­go­ing ba­sis be­cause it has not pro­vided [the Of­fice of In­ter­na­tional En­force­ment] with ad­e­quate staffing and re­sources,” GAO in­ves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded, adding they also found “weak­nesses” in how DHS talks with over­seas posts work­ing on visa is­sues.

Euro­pean Union of­fi­cials have com­plained that while U.S. na­tion­als can visit any of the 25 EU mem­ber states with­out a visa, only 15 of th­ese coun­tries re­ceive re­cip­ro­cal priv­i­leges from the United States. Mr. Bush dis­cussed the prob­lem with EU of­fi­cials at a July sum­mit in Vi­enna, Aus­tria.

Ex­clu­sion from the waiver pro­gram is a point of con­tention in for­mer com­mu­nist bloc coun­tries such as Es­to­nia, Poland and Hun­gary that have be­come staunch U.S. al­lies in the war on ter­ror­ism.

Mr. Bush said the eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal progress those na­tions have­madeearn­s­themthep­riv­i­lege of par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­gram.

“Both the [Es­to­nian] pres­i­dent and the prime min­is­ter made this a im­por­tant part of our dis­cus­sions,” he said. “They made it clear to me that if we’re an ally in NATO, peo­ple ought to be able to come to our coun­try in a much eas­ier fash­ion.”

Mr. Bush said he wanted to “as­sure mem­bers of Congress that in loos­en­ing the visa-waiver is­sue, or chang­ing the visa-waiver is­sue, that we’ll still be able to pro­tect our coun­try from peo­ple who would ex­ploit the Visa Waiver Pro­gram to come to our coun­try to do harm.”

Among the cur­rent re­quire­ments is that the visa-re­fusal rate from a coun­try be be­low 3 per­cent and that they have a low rate of trav­el­ers who vi­o­late the 90-day limit.

Gor­don John­droe, spokesman for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, said Mr. Bush will ask Congress for the power to waive the 3 per­cent rule for some coun­tries as long as those na­tions meet new en­hanced se­cu­rity re­quire­ments.

The waiver pro­gram re­cently be­gan re­quir­ing pass­ports to in­clude a ma­chine-read­able com­puter chip con­tain­ing pass­port data as a se­cu­rity mea­sure.

The GAO warned that tight­en­ing or end­ing the Visa Waiver Pro­gram could lead to other coun­tries re­tal­i­at­ing and re­quir­ing visas for U.S. vis­i­tors. But the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said the pro­gram has draw­backs be­cause trav­el­ers from vi­sawaiver coun­tries don’t have to be screened as closely as other trav­el­ers — a con­cern Michael W. Cut­ler, a re­tired Im­mi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vice agent, said shows why ev­ery­one en­ter­ing the United States should have to ob­tain a visa.

With­out it, the only manda­tory screen­ing is done by a Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion in­spec­tor who is try­ing to move vis­i­tors along the en­try line, Mr. Cut­ler said. He said the visa ap­pli­ca­tion process pro­vides in­ves­ti­ga­tors leads to go af­ter ter­ror sus­pects. Ly­ing on the ap­pli­ca­tion is pun­ish­able by a stiff prison sen­tence — a charge au­thor­i­ties can of­ten make stick even in cases where they can’t prove ter­ror­ist or crim­i­nal in­volve­ment.

The for­mer agent said the ex­am­ples of would-be shoe bomber Richard C. Reid and this sum­mer’s foiled plot to blow up air­planes headed from Lon­don to the United States, show the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

“Th­ese ter­ror­ists were able to gain ac­cess to air­lin­ers and po­ten­tially our na­tion with­out first ap­ply­ing for visas. This is be­cause Great Bri­tain, the coun­try of cit­i­zen­ship for all of th­ese ter­ror­ists, par­tic­i­pates in the Visa Waiver Pro­gram,” Mr. Cut­ler said.

Half of all trips by non-im­mi­grant for­eign­ers into the United States are peo­ple trav­el­ing on pass­ports from visa-waiver coun­tries.

In a state­ment on Nov. 28 Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Michael Chertoff did not say how his de­part­ment will han­dle the in­creased de­mands but de­scribed the new se­cu­rity en­hance­ments.

“We en­vi­sion a se­cure travel-au­tho­riza­tion sys­tem that will al­low us to re­ceive data about trav­el­ers from coun­tries be­fore they get on the plane,” he said. “Coun­tries that are will­ing to as­sist the United States in do­ing ef­fec­tive checks on trav­el­ers could be put on track to en­ter the pro­gram soon.”

Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Pres­i­dent Bush waved while board­ing Air Force One at An­drews Air Force Base in Mary­land Nov. 27 be­fore de­part­ing on a four-day in­ter­na­tional trip.

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