WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Maine, Wednesday pressed Administration officials about continuing gaps in our defenses against terrorist travel, including inadequate security in visa processing, a large backlog of visa overstays in this country, and our failure to implement biometric information-sharing programs with our allies.

Entitled “Ten Years After 9/11: Preventing Terrorist Travel,” the hearing was the fifth in a series the Committee is holding to review the state of our nation’s terrorist defenses as we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Denying terrorists the ability to travel to our country from abroad and attack us was one of the fundamental recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission,” said Lieberman. “We have come a long way since 9/11 in preventing terrorist travel but we have much work to do to close remaining gaps.

“Implementation of the program at overseas consular offices that requires all visa applicants to be investigated is seriously lagging. The Department of Homeland Security and the State Department have identified 57 high-risk posts abroad, but of the 20 highest risk posts only nine have criminal investigators to provide an added layer of security to the visa issuing process.

“Only half of the countries whose citizens need no visa to enter the U.S. have signed electronic biometric information-sharing agreements required to participate in the Visa Waiver Program, and none of these agreements has actually been implemented.

“And, implementation of U.S. VISIT’s exit system has been one of our biggest failures, leading to large backlogs of potential overstays and uncertainty about whether people have left the country.  I am heartened that most of this backlog has been cleared in response to a our previous questions about it but I question why it took so long

“We will never achieve 100 percent security but we must continue our work to improve these shortcomings.”

Collins said: “The U.S. is spending billions of dollars to increase our security by preventing suspected terrorists from traveling to this country.  We have improved our watch lists and how we verify documents, among other refinements.  But as a new GAO report shows, we must also rely on the systems of our partner countries, which are hamstrung by troubling gaps ranging from corruption to counterfeit documents to poor record keeping.  As terrorist groups continue to innovate and probe our defenses, our partner countries must strengthen their systems.  Our safety is truly only as strong as our weakest link.”

The new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found significant gaps in the ability of many foreign countries to prevent terrorists from traveling to this country. GAO identified a lack of coordination among U.S. agencies charged with helping our foreign partners improve their capacity to detect fraudulent documents and fight corruption.

In the past 10 years, legislation authored by this Committee has created a number of programs and systems meant to enhance our government’s ability to identify terrorists and prevent them from traveling to our shores.

• The Homeland Security Act of 2002 gave DHS the authority to set visa policy and deploy Visa Security Units to overseas consular posts to provide an added layer of security in the issuing of visas.
• The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, among other things, called for a biometric entry and exit system for travelers into and out of the U.S., enhanced travel documents, and required consular officials to conduct personal interviews with all visa applicants.
• The act also directed the President to negotiate agreements with other nations to share information on lost or stolen travel documents, and further strengthened our screening system by requiring that domestic and international airline passengers be screened against terrorist watch lists. 
• The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 addressed a weakness in the Visa Waiver Program that allows travelers from certain countries to bypass the visa screening process and come directly to the United States. 

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