State may stretch deadline for scannable passports

Faced with a massive logistics problem, State Department officials are considering delaying the target date for requiring passports from 26 countries to be machine-readable at U.S. entry points.

Although the requirement involving mostly affluent, industrialized nations was to go into effect on Oct. 1, State officials said Sept. 9 that machines are not yet able to scan many foreign passports. The automation, required by the U.S. Patriot Act, would cut entry time and give border agents a chance to compare the passport with a database containing information on known potential terrorists or other criminals.

State officials have asked the 26 countries to report if they need a one-time-only delay until Oct. 27, 2004. The countries in the visa waiver program include Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and most of Western Europe. Citizens from these nations are allowed to visit the United States for up to 90 days without a visa. Belgium, which is under special rules, cannot apply for the extension. The requirement of machine-readability has applied to Belgium since May because of concerns about the security of Belgian passports, according to the State officials.

Foreign governments in the visa waiver program also face another deadline of Oct. 26, 2004, to introduce biometric identifiers in their passports. The identifiers, which could be in the form of computer microchips, would include digitally-coded information containing a person's fingerprints or a scan of their iris.

The United States is working toward developing its own passports for U.S. citizens that are machine-readable and also contain biometric identifiers.

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