Last week's warning by the director of MI5 that British intelligence knew of dozens of terrorist plots to conduct mass casualty attacks in the United Kingdom and other countries highlights the vulnerability of U.S. homeland security to terrorist attacks initiated in friendly countries. The warning follows closely this summer's revelations about a plot by London-based terrorists to destroy passenger aircraft on transatlantic flights after they entered American airspace. Both underscore the security problems resulting from the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP). As British nationals, all the airplane plotters would have been able to board U.S.-bound flights with only a passport and without the additional security screening required of most foreign citizens, who need a visa to enter the United States.
The United States established the VWP to eliminate unnecessary travel barriers, stimulate tourism, fortify relations with friendly countries, and save the government money by allowing State Department consular officers to focus attention on nationals from higher-risk visa applicant pools. The VWP began as a pilot program in 1986 and became permanent in October 2000. At present, citizens of 27 countries—overwhelmingly in Europe and East Asia—can enter the United States for purposes of tourism or business (but not employment or formal study) for as long as 90 days without obtaining a visa. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), over 15 million people entered the United States under the VWP in Fiscal Year 2004. They constituted approximately one-half of all nonimmigrant entrants into the United States.
Critics of the VWP focus on what they perceive as two interrelated risks posed by the program. First, they fear it facilitates illegal immigration into the United States through unauthorized visa overstays. By legitimately entering U.S. territory, but then remaining past the 90-day window, nationals from VWP countries can live and typically work in the United States in violation of U.S. immigration laws.
Second, VWP detractors worry that the program presents a security risk since terrorists can use its procedures to enter the United States with less extensive screening than required of visa applicants. In particular, holders of passports from VWP countries do not need to undergo a preliminary interview in their home country by a U.S. consular officer before arriving at an American port of entry. Whereas consular officers typically have some training and experience regarding the alien's culture and language, the border inspector at a U.S. point of entry will only have this knowledge by chance. The hectic conditions at border entry posts also typically do not permit the lengthy interview process allowed visa-issuing officers at U.S. embassies and consulates. As a result, VWP entrants often receive one cursory screening rather than a two-staged review involving different U.S. border officers with varying experiences and concerns.
A September 2006 report of the Government Accountability Office identified serious flaws in biennial reviews the U.S. government uses to assess how well VWP countries are fulfilling the program's eligibility requirements in such areas as naturalization, border controls, fraudulent travel documents, and other law enforcement issues. For example, although the DHS Office of International Enforcement has developed a strategic plan to monitor the program, it has only two full-time employees devoted to managing the demanding review process. Along with three contractors, they had to organize and train an inter-agency assessment team as well as coordinate their two-week intensive study of each VWP country under review. The GAO investigators also found that the 2004 and 2005 review groups did not comprehensively consult all key stakeholders, prepare adequately for the evaluations, or generate timely reports.
Another complication with the VWP is that it has become a major source of irritation for many countries excluded from the program. The leaders of those East European countries that joined NATO and the EU several years ago wonder why they remain excluded. In East Asia, South Koreans and Taiwanese argue that their long-standing commercial and security ties with the United States warrant their inclusion. The VWP issue regularly occupies a prominent place on the agenda whenever East European and Asian heads of state meet with President Bush.
The Bush administration and the newly empowered Democratic leaders of Congress have pledged to cooperate to solve America's most pressing security problems. Fixing the VWP would be a good place to start. A priority should be providing additional resources to the DHS VWP Oversight Unit. In addition, a centralized mechanism and strict guidelines for foreign governments to report information about lost and stolen travel documents should be established. Furthermore, DHS should accelerate plans to ensure that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers can access the Interpol database of fraudulent passports at their primary inspection stations.
The United States can also reduce visa-related tensions with foreign nations excluded from the VWP even without relaxing the program's eligibility requirements. In particular, U.S. officials could work with foreign governments to expand opportunities for their citizens to obtain visas while they await their possible future incorporation into the VWP. Depending on the foreign partner, these steps could include initiatives to lower visa rejection rates, permit greater use of original language supporting documents, make arranging visa interviews easier, increase the number of U.S. consular officers stationed in foreign localities, assist host governments to produce more secure travel documents, and expand the use of "pre-screening" techniques that would allow visa applicants to better assess their prospects before submitting formal applications and the nonrefundable $100 processing fee.
The author is Associate Director, Center for Future Security Strategies, the Hudson Institute.