WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Tuesday pointed to the progress being made by a border security program that screens travelers who don’t need visas to enter the United States.

In a new report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) was effectively screening travelers from so-called “visa waiver countries” against terrorist and violent criminal databases. GAO also said the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to improve the electronic sharing of information on violent criminals with visa waiver program countries.

 “This GAO report reassures me that the Department of Homeland Security is making progress toward securing the nation’s borders by thoroughly pre-screening air travelers who don’t need visas to travel to this country,” Lieberman said. “ESTA provides an additional layer of protection against terrorists boarding airplanes bound for this country and is a key part of our effort to combat terrorism. 


“I continue to be concerned, however, that DHS has yet to begin electronically sharing fingerprint information about serious and violent criminals with visa waiver countries, as required by law, and I urge Secretary Napolitano to speed up that process.”

            Collins said: “The Visa Waiver Program strengthens ties with our allies by permitting ‘visa-free’ travel.  But facilitating legitimate travel should not be done at the expense of our security.  Terrorists will continue to seek to exploit any vulnerability in our visa system.  It was troubling to learn that DHS is not meeting all the congressional security requirements for the Via Waiver Program since this is a key tool to prevent terrorists from traveling to our nation.  DHS must provide greater oversight of the Visa Waiver Program and full implementation of all the information-sharing agreements with partner countries.”

ESTA was created by 9/11 Commission recommendations legislation drafted by HSGAC and passed by Congress in 2007. It requires travelers from visa waiver countries to submit their names for screening by DHS prior to their travel.  Before ESTA, DHS’ first opportunity to screen travelers from visa waiver countries was mid flight.


GAO concluded that DHS was taking steps to minimize the burdens associated with the program’s requirements.  In the six visa waiver countries GAO investigated, government and travel industry officials said DHS had reached out to them, was responsive to their concerns, and shared information in a timely manner, although each country complained about fees associated with the program.


GAO also noted that DHS had not yet completed a review of the security risks posed by the 2 percent of visa waiver travelers, about 365,000, who travel without ESTA verifications because a small number of airlines are not yet able to make electronic checks. DHS has said this gap will be eliminated sometime this year.


GAO also reported that only half of visa waiver countries have signed the biometric law enforcement information sharing agreements required by law, and none of the signed agreements have been implemented to date.