Feinstein opposes passport delay

A Democratic senator said she would oppose any extension giving visa-waiver countries more time to embed their passports with biometric identifiers, as U.S. law now requires.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also said management of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) — which allows citizens of certain countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa — was "sloppy and in great disarray."

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who testified before the committee today, said officials in the 27 visa-waiver countries are willing to develop such biometric-embedded passports. But the technical challenges are complex and they need more time to sort them out, Ridge said.

He favors a two-year extension of the Oct. 26 deadline, established by the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, for visa-waiver countries to have machine-readable passports with biometrics. Face mapping is the internationally adopted standard currently..

But Feinstein said the waiver program represents a "point of maximum exposure" where terrorists can enter the country. Extending the time to include biometric identifiers poses enormous security risks, she said.

She said several known or alleged terrorists — including Ramzi Youssef, who traveled under a British passport and was convicted for 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who had a British passport; and Zacarias Moussaoui, who had a French passport and is on trial for conspiring in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — have used VWP.

Feinstein also said stolen or lost passports from VWP countries could provide easy access documents for terrorists to enter the United States.

She said that if the management problems cannot be resolved, then a moratorium should be put on the program. She cited an April report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general that states that the program's organizational issues haven't been fully resolved since the department was created last year.

"Since the dissolution of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the VWP has had a series of acting managers and officials sharing responsibilities," the report states. "It is not clear to many within DHS, or other federal agencies, who is in charge of the VWP."

Ridge said Congress created VWP so lawmakers would have to approve any changes to it. Although he said Feinstein's concerns were legitimate, he stressed that other countries will comply with the program if they get an extension. He also said officials from those countries should immediately notify U.S. authorities about lost or stolen passports.

If countries don't meet the extension, then their citizens would be required to get visas, which some lawmakers said could deter travelers and impact tourism here.

House lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would provide a one-year extension to those VWP countries needing more time to develop biometric-embedded passports.

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