WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., said the Department of Homeland Security’s hasty expansion of an electronic travel security system intended to make Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries more secure comes at the expense of real security in older VWP countries.
The Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA), which went into full effect Monday, means that travelers from any of the 35 participating VWP countries need to be authorized by the system before being allowed into the country. The electronic system is intended to detect terrorists attempting to enter the U.S. from VWP countries. Lieberman said ESTA is not working as it should in older VWP countries, much less in the eight newly added nations.
“Although I strongly support the Visa Waiver Program, the Department has moved too quickly to certify and implement the electronic travel authorization system,” Lieberman said. “At this time, I do not believe it is capable of doing what it is supposed to, which is to track terrorists entering from Visa Waiver countries. To prevent terrorists from entering our country, we have to get this program right. And I believe DHS has a lot of work to do before the Visa Waiver Program is secure.”
The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, co-authored by Lieberman, required the development of ESTA. The law allowed for the expansion of the VWP only after ESTA was “fully operational” and DHS had developed an exit system capable of verifying the departure from the U.S. of “not less than 97 percent of foreign nationals who exit through airports…”
Lieberman said he believed DHS rushed to certify and implement ESTA so the Administration could add eight new countries to the list of countries whose citizens may travel to the U.S. without obtaining a visa. Since 2005, the Administration has made the expansion of the program a key diplomatic initiative.
As HSGAC Chairman, Lieberman has overseen the Department’s efforts for the past year to comply with the VWP’s required security improvements. ESTA requires travelers to submit their names electronically in advance of travel so they can be checked against terrorist databases. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported that the Department is not capable of fully assessing risks to the program or taking the necessary steps to mitigate those risks. DHS officials also confirmed to the Committee that airlines lack the ability to determine whether travelers from VWP countries have obtained travel authorizations from ESTA.
“The threat of terrorism from several countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program is very real,” Lieberman said. “Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national, and Richard Reid, the British ‘shoe bomber,’ are just two examples of the threat travelers from these countries can pose. That’s why we need an airtight electronic system of travel authorization. “Seven years after 9/11 and amid ongoing concerns about homegrown terrorism in Europe, I am disappointed DHS has moved ahead before security precautions for current member countries are effective.”