WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., expressed disappointment Thursday that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has certified as “fully operational” an electronic travel security system intended to make the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) more secure by detecting terrorists attempting to enter the U.S. from VWP countries.
Although the new travel security system will not be functioning at full tilt for some time, Lieberman said, DHS has rushed to certify it so the Administration can add seven more countries to the list of those whose citizens may travel to the U.S. without obtaining a visa.
“I am concerned that DHS moved hastily to certify the electronic travel authorization before it is capable of doing what it is supposed to,” Lieberman said. “The threat of terrorism is real from several countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program. 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.”
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…” DHS Secretary Chertoff certified Thursday that both criteria had been met, paving the way for the admission of additional countries to the Visa Waiver Program, which the Administration planned to announce formally on Monday. Since 2005, the Administration has made the expansion of the program a key diplomatic initiative.
Since last year Lieberman has overseen the Department’s efforts to comply with the VWP’s required security improvements. ESTA requires travelers to submit their names electronically in advance of travel so that their names can be checked against terrorist databases. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that the Department is not capable of fully assessing risks to the program or taking the necessary steps to mitigate those risks. More recently, DHS officials have confirmed to the Committee that airlines presently lack the ability to determine whether travelers from VWP countries have obtained travel authorizations from ESTA.
“Seven years after 9/11 and amid ongoing concerns about homegrown terrorism in Europe, I am disappointed DHS is moving ahead to add new countries to the Visa Waiver Program before security precautions for current member countries are effective,” Lieberman said. “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.”
GAO has also cited a series of problems DHS faced in creating the ESTA, including developing and implementing a user-friendly system; informing U.S. embassies in VWP countries and the public about the new system; anticipating and addressing possible increased consular workloads; and anticipating and addressing the impact on air and sea carriers. GAO also said, DHS “has not followed a transparent process” in its expansion of the VWP.
In September 2007, the Director of National Intelligence testified before Congress that al Qaeda was recruiting Europeans to commit terrorist attacks in the U.S. because many European countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program.