Reliable Security Information

Visa Waiver-Vulnerability or Valuable Anti-Terrorist Tool?

One of the hottest topics in Washington these days is the debate over where the next major terrorist strike will come from. One avenue of attack cited on several occasions by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III has concerns regarding the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). For example, last February the Washington Post reported, "[a]t a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Mueller said that the bureau is expanding its focus beyond al-Qaeda and into splinter groups, radicals who try to enter the country through the visa waiver program and 'home-grown terrorists.' The universe of crime and terrorism stretches out infinitely before us, and we too are working to find what we believe to be out there but cannot always see[.]" VWP allows select countries to have their citizens visit us (and vice versa) for up to 90 days for tourist or business travel without having to get a visa. Mueller and others fear that terrorists might seek a passport from a VWP country to come into the United States. According to recent report by The Heritage Foundation, however, the answer to combating this threat is to expand the program. Reforms in recent years, the study finds, "have made the program a better tool for thwarting terrorist and criminal travel as well as combating violations of U.S. immigration laws (while enhancing safeguards of individual privacy and improving the convenience of international travel)."

The report titled, "Visa Waiver Program: A Plan to Build on Success" examines the numerous security improvements that have been made to the program since 9/11; the economic benefits of participating in VWP; and the value of the initiative to public diplomacy and America's reputation abroad. After carefully examining each of these issues the study concludes with proposing additional measures based on rigorous analysis of lessons learned from the past few years by a non-partisan, independent task force of scholars, researchers, and former government officials. Their review and recommendations for the next steps in the VWP are based on an evaluation of current and future threats, an assessment of ongoing government programs, and an analysis of trends in trade and international travel. The critical necessary steps the task force identified are: (1) Congress should transfer permanent waiver authority to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and decouple VWP from the biometric air-exit mandate, a mandate that would require DHS to biometrically track the exit of foreign passengers leaving the United States by air, so that the current DHS visa waiver authority does not expire should DHS not deploy air exit by July 1, 2009; (2) Congress should reiterate that long-time VWP member countries, just like new members, must enter into bilateral agreements to implement post-9/11 VWP security requirements; (3) Congress and DHS should work together to ensure that the biennial security reviews of VWP member countries are a meaningful exercise; (4) Congress should ensure that the new Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) is user-friendly through multiple-language availability and reliance on quality databases: (5) Congress should oversee the membership process.

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