WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., pressed government officials Wednesday on the status of federal programs designed to prevent terrorists from entering the United States and expressed displeasure over the Internet posting by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of sensitive security information.

            At a hearing titled “Five Years After the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevents Act: Stopping Terrorist Travel,” witnesses from the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), State, and Justice provided updates on programs such as U.S. Visit, the Visa Waiver Program, and terrorist watch lists maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center. These programs were created by two pieces of legislation that originated in the Committee.

            “We’ve come a long way since the September 11, 2001, hijackers were granted entry to the U.S. based on both legal and fraudulent visas,” Lieberman said. “But we cannot let down our guard, which is why I am so troubled by this serious security breach of TSA information that could help terrorists to defeat the agency’s inspection process.  In a country as open as the U.S., and in an age of free-flowing information, we must have adequate safeguards in place to ensure that terrorists aren’t given any advantages as they plot against us. We await TSA’s review of how this happened and how they are intending to mitigate the consequences of this mistake. It’s a constant challenge to be ahead of the enemy.”

            Collins said: “Five years ago, this Committee authored the most significant reform of the nation’s intelligence community since the Second World War.  Today, we recognize there is no time to rest, no reason to pause, in our efforts to protect our country from terrorist attacks. Earlier this week we received a chilling reminder of how a lapse in security can pose a serious threat to our homeland.  A version of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) aviation security manual was posted on the Internet for anyone to read.  Knowledge of TSA’s passenger screening procedures could prove invaluable to those seeking to harm our citizens.  By allowing the aviation security manual to be posted online, TSA has effectively given al-Qaeda and every other terrorist group a textbook for evading airport security. Terrorists continually change their strategies and mutate their forms of attack.  We know, however, that their aim remains to harm this nation and its people.”

            In her opening remarks, Senator Collins also quoted Stewart A. Baker, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, who called the TSA breach “serious,” and who warned that the manual could become a textbook for those trying to penetrate U.S. aviation security.

            The Senators questioned the witnesses about several weaknesses in travel security programs that need to be addressed, including the security of primary source documents like birth certificates to deter fraud; agreements to share biometric law enforcement and terror watch list information with all 35 Visa Waiver Program countries;  implementation of the US-VISIT biometric exit system at all ports of exit; and information sharing about people with dual passports who could use one passport to travel places that would raise flags and a different passport to enter the U.S.

            The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 – enacting most of the recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission – called for a biometric entry and exit system for travelers into and out of the U.S., required travel documents to contain biometric information, and directed consular posts to collect biometric data from foreigners wishing to travel to the U.S. It directed the President to negotiate agreements with other nations to share information on lost and stolen travel documents; required that consular officers be trained in the detection of terrorist travel patterns and document fraud; and required that anyone applying for visas to the U.S. be subject to personal interviews at consular posts abroad.  The Act further strengthened our screening system by establishing the National Counter-Terrorism Center and requiring that domestic and international airline passengers be screened against terrorist watch lists. 

            The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 strengthened the Visa Waiver program by creating the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), a program that allows the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to screen travelers before they board an airplane. 

            Witnesses at the hearing included Rand Beers, Under Secretary, National Protection and Programs Directorate at DHS; Janice L. Jacobs, Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs, Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department; David F. Heyman, Assistant Secretary for Policy at DHS; and

Timothy J. Healy, Director of the Terrorist Screening Center, Federal Bureau of Investigation.