WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., expressed disappointment Tuesday that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is moving forward to expand the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) even though key security precautions required by law for current participants have not been implemented.

The Senator’s comments came in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report assessing DHS’ management of the program, which allows citizens of 27 participating countries to enter the United States without visas, and in particular the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), a system to screen VWP travelers in advance of their travel.

GAO found that even though the Department has successfully processed 50,000 travel requests through ESTA since August 2008 and is working in partnership with the travel and tourism industries to make the system work, DHS is not capable of fully assessing risks to the program or taking the necessary steps to mitigate those risks.

“Seven years after 9/11 and amid ongoing concerns about homegrown terrorism in Europe, I am disappointed the Department wants to expand the Visa Waiver Program before fully implementing security measures required by law for current participants,” Lieberman said. “To prevent terrorists from entering our country, we have to get this program right. GAO’s findings make it clear that DHS has a lot of work to do before the Visa Waiver Program is secure. And I have asked the GAO to continue monitoring the Department’s progress.”

A key condition to expansion of the VWP contained in The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, which Lieberman co-authored, was a requirement that DHS implement a system to screen VWP travelers electronically in advance of their travel and certify that the system is fully operational. According to the GAO, however, DHS has determined that the law permits it to expand the VWP before the electronic screening system is mandatory for all VWP travelers.

GAO cited a series of problems DHS is facing 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.

GAO noted that “Visa Waiver Program travelers are not subject to the same degree of screening as those with visas because they are not interviewed by a Department of State (State) consular officer before arriving at a U.S. port of entry. Without the added safeguard of the visa issuance process, the Visa Waiver Program could be exploited to gain illegal entry into the United States.”

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.

Lieberman said Congress’ legislative intent was to require DHS to make two key certifications before additional countries with visa refusal rates between 3 and 10 percent can be admitted to the program: a fully operational ESTA must be implemented and DHS must verify the departure of 97 percent of foreign travelers who exit U.S. airports.