Homeland Security

Warner: Visa waiver data troubling in light of Paris attacks

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) warned about gaps in the security data collected under the Visa Waiver Program.

A program that allows people from certain countries to travel to the U.S. without a visa has troubling information gaps, according to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, federal and state officials have expressed concerns about the U.S. admitting refugees fleeing the years-long civil war in Syria without conducting thorough background checks. But according to Warner, gaps in the Visa Waiver Program could be a greater cause for worry.

The data collected under VWP might lack critical information about where foreign applicants have traveled, Warner said in a Nov. 18 speech during the Professional Services Council's 2015 Vision Conference. Meanwhile, refugees entering the U.S. are subject to a two-year-long review process that involves almost a dozen interviews with immigration and intelligence authorities.

Warner said it was "appropriate and proper to take a pause and re-review the refugee process," although he noted that intelligence has shown that at least some of the Paris attackers were European nationals.

VWP allows the residents of 38 participating countries to come to the United States without a visa for up to 90 days, if those countries cooperate with U.S. security and information-sharing arrangements.

To participate in VWP, travelers must have a passport issued by a participating country and undergo a security check through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, an online application run by the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection.

However, Warner said the information travelers must supply does not necessarily include off-the-books travel to territory controlled by the Islamic State group.

Warner said VWP doesn't record where passport holders travel beyond their initial destinations. "We don't know how many European nationals have gone from France or elsewhere to Turkey or where they've gone from there, and [they] come here with virtually no screening," he said. Although the current focus is on France and Belgium, "literally 10 million people with German passports last year traveled to Turkey because there's such an enormous Turkish population in Germany and many travel back to see relatives."

Although he acknowledged that getting a greater level of detail "is an enormous challenge," he said VWP should be thoughtfully reviewed to fill in data gaps.

About a year ago, DHS began beefing up the amount of data collected under the program. Secretary Jeh Johnson said in November 2014 that foreign nationals traveling to the U.S. under VWP would have to provide additional information in their ESTA applications.

That data includes city of birth, national identification number, personal and employer contact information, parents' names, aliases and any other types of citizenship an individual might hold.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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