TCS Daily

The Senator vs. Security

By James K. Glassman - March 18, 2002 12:00 AM

Editor's note: TCS Host James K. Glassman interviewed Arizona Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl, to discuss his legislation to tighten the U.S. visa system. Kyl is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism and Technology.

Jim Glassman: Senator, thank you very much for doing this. What did you think, Senator, when you heard the other day that two of the September 11th hijackers had been given visa approval from the INS six months after the fact?

Senator Kyl: Frankly, I wasn't surprised but I was outraged. That is indicative of the shape that the INS is in right now.

Jim Glassman: Tell me about your bill to tighten the visa entry system. What is it designed to do?

Senator Kyl: There are a variety of things to close loopholes in the current law, some of which allowed some of the 19 hijackers to actually get into the United States with legal visas. They all came here legally, all right. How did that happen? One thing was that we didn't have a capacity for the FBI, the CIA, INS, State Department, and even international organizations to put information about potential terrorists into a database that could be accessed by the Consular Officers or others who issue visas.

So one of the things we do is have an inter-operable information sharing system that has name matching capacity and that would require all of this information to be available to those people who would grant visas for entry into the U.S. Another thing is to provide a biometric passport or travel document that's machine readable for anyone who would come here from a visa-waiver state and probably, well, it would actually go beyond that with respect to some other countries as well.

Jim Glassman: What does that mean?

Senator Kyl: Biometric would be an identifier that either matches fingerprints, the iris of the eye or facial features to a similar identifier that's already in the computer database so that when you stand in front of a camera or scanner or you put your fingers on this machine, it would immediately verify that you either are or are not the person that you claim to be. Combined then with the data that we require to be in the system that tells a Consular Officer, for example, what kind of person you are, that you have known ties to terrorists or that you're clean as can be. That then can be the basis for a decision of whether to let you have a visa or not.

Jim Glassman: So is this the so-called smart visa card?

Senator Kyl: Yes, and it's patterned after a card that's already -- or a laser visa, we call it that -- supposed to be in effect in the Southern border. Already hundreds of thousands if not millions of Mexican citizens have acquired this visa so that they can cross with ease into the United States for up to 50 miles or a period of three days and that replaces a card that was easily, well, you could obtain for I think about $35 on the black market. So this is fraud proof.

Jim Glassman: Now, I've heard about a smart visa that would automatically send out a signal to tell the authorities that you've overstayed your visa and, in fact, would tell where you are, at least where your card is. Would this do that?

Senator Kyl: We do not call for that in the legislation but we do call for an implementation of the exit entry system, which is required by the 1996 law and has never really been implemented. And the INS could determine that this kind of information and this kind of data in a card could be used but we don't mandate that in our legislation.

Jim Glassman: Now how could a system like this prevent future terrorists attacks?

Senator Kyl: Well, for example, I haven't mentioned yet the way that we tighten up on student visas. This is the Mohammed Atta kind of situation. There are a variety of problems with the way that the student visas currently operate. We close most of those loopholes so that if you're coming to the United States on a student visa, you can't game the system anymore. You're the only one that can come. The school has to notify INS that you show up and register for your classes. So you can't get in here, and then never show up for class and just meld into our society. That's another one of the reforms in the legislation.

Jim Glassman: Where does your legislation stand right now?

Senator Kyl: Senators Feinstein [D-Calif.], Kennedy [D-Mass.], and Brownback [R-Kan.] and I drafted it last December and it was passed in the House of Representatives first because we thought the procedure there would be more difficult. We wanted to be able to bring it back to the Senate so that we could adopt it without any amendments and pass it on to the President.

And then last month, totally unexpectedly, Senator Robert Byrd [D-West Virginia]objected to the consideration of the legislation even though he told me that he supports it on the merits. His reasons had to do primarily with the procedure that had just been used to kill $15 billion in spending that he wanted in the Homeland Security Bill.

Since then we've asked him for an agreement that would enable it to come to the floor with an agreement on time and amendments and he has yet to be persuaded to allow that. And because Tom Daschle, the Majority Leader, doesn't want to put a bill on the floor these days without a finite amount of time on it since he's trying to move legislation rapidly -- unlike judges I might say -- the net result is we haven't gotten to the floor yet but we're trying hard to get that done.

Jim Glassman: So does Byrd's committee, the Appropriations Committee have jurisdiction over this bill?

Senator Kyl: No, it's just that under the procedure that we were going to bring it to the Senate, unanimous consent is required. And if we're not to do that then we have to get it all the way back through committee, go through the hearing process, pass it out, get it to the floor, and even then, Tom Daschle won't put it on the floor because he knows that there will be an effort to take more time on the bill than Daschle thinks is warranted.

Jim Glassman: Let me get this straight. This is one Senator holding up a bill, which I assume the vast majority of the Senate believes would add to this nation's security in a significant way. Is that right?

Senator Kyl: Yes. We have over half of the Senators as actual sponsors on the legislation including the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee and I think that both Daschle and Lott are sponsors as well. The Administration supports it. It passed unanimously in the House. We have offered Senator Byrd basically anything reasonable that he wants but he's still unwilling to do this. I really believe -- and I don't want to ascribe motive to any of my colleagues -- but I think it has to do with a bigger battle that he's having with the President over who actually decides how homeland security money is going to be spent.

Jim Glassman: Is there specific homeland security money that Byrd wants to be spent, for example, in his own state?

Senator Kyl: There could be. I mean, there's speculation that that's part of this. We've talked to him about that and assured him that there's no restriction on where the money would be spent. He has variously said that he's unsure that the money will be appropriated to implement this legislation. Well, he can assure that and that he wants plenty of time for debate and amendments and we've offered that. So, it's a little unclear to me exactly why he won't let it on the floor but hopefully he'll agree to some kind of process whereby it can be done quickly and we'll get it done.

Jim Glassman: Now, maybe I'm not clear on Senate procedure, but can you get it on the floor anyway with 60 votes?

Senator Kyl: Sure. We can actually get it on the floor and Tom Daschle could put it on the floor. His problem is that he tries to get agreements from Senators on how long a bill is going to take. Without that agreement and without some limitation on amendments, then it's kind of a jump ball and anybody can try to attach any amendments that they want to that are either germane or not germane. We could end up with all kinds of things taking up the Senate's time, which Daschle doesn't think he has enough of to permit that to happen.

Jim Glassman: So I don't want to belabor this point but let me just summarize. This is a bill that passed the House on March 13th, is that correct?

Senator Kyl: No, it passed the House before Christmas. The bill has passed the House twice. The first time it passed as a clean bill that I've described here, before Christmas, just before adjournment. And the second time, they attached it to, or attached to it, the so-called extension of the Section 245I, which is a section that permits two or three hundred thousand people who had been in queue to be granted permanent status to the United States but whose time ran out, an opportunity to go ahead and complete their application process, though it doesn't permit any new people to qualify for the status. That's something that a lot of Democrats wanted, the Administration wanted very badly, and as a result, the idea was that the House would send that over as well so that you have two different versions. You have our clean version of the underlying bill or you have that plus the extension of 245I.

Jim Glassman: So this is a bill which almost everyone in Congress agrees would enhance national security and might prevent future attacks like September 11th and it's basically being held up by one person.

Senator Kyl: It's being held up by one person and I should, to be fair, say that the Majority Leader who could put it on the floor, has decided at least so far not to do that either out of deference to Robert Byrd or because he's concerned about how much time it might take if he does schedule it for consideration.

Jim Glassman: So in a sense both Robert Byrd and Tom Daschle are holding it up?

Senator Kyl: Yes. But I do need to say that Tom Daschle himself has been very supportive of the legislation so I don't want to suggest that there's some other motive on his part. He's just concerned about the bill taking too much legislative time. My own view is that as soon as we finish the energy bill that this ought to be the very next item of business and, frankly, we probably should have done it before the energy bill because nothing is more important than fighting this war on terrorism.

Jim Glassman: And you think that we are really racing against the clock on this?

Senator Kyl: I do. See, that's the problem. It's going to take quite awhile, many months, and in a couple of cases, actually a period of years to implement certain provisions. It's not easy to require everybody to have one of these biometric identifier cards as an alternative to a visa, for example, and it'll take time to put it in place. So, I think the sooner we get a better start, the better, and in the meantime, I just hope that you don't have more Mohammed Attas sneaking into the country who shouldn't be here.

Jim Glassman: And again, this is not, at least based on your conversation with Senator Byrd, this is not a matter of Senator Byrd believing that there's something wrong specifically with a biometric identification card. He just is apparently angry over procedural matters having to do with appropriations for national security, correct?

Senator Kyl: He has no objections to the substance of the bill, he's told me but he has also said that he thinks this bill should require a lot of debate and amendments. But it's unclear what he has in mind.

Jim Glassman: Just one last question. How else could technology be used to thwart terrorists?

Senator Kyl: Oh, there are so many different ways. In addition to the kind of identifiers that we could require here, you could have a voluntary system of biometric identifiers that people could use to get through airport lines, for example, kind of like an HOV lane for vehicular traffic. We will need to have enhanced cyber-security and our technology there, or the defense is lagging behind the offense. You can hack into systems and create all kinds of havoc, including bringing down the financial system, the traffic and communications grid, energy grid, and so on and unless we apply a lot of technology to defeat that kind of terrorist attack, we're going to have a great deal of vulnerability toward information infrastructure. Those are just two examples that show you the variety of things that we need to be doing.

Jim Glassman: Okay, thank you very much, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Senator Kyl: Thank you, Jim.

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