DHS’ travel program certification draws fire

Members of Congress worry that the Homeland Security Department rushed to install a system that does not meet their intentions.

Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that seven additional countries — the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and South Korea — would be joining the 27 countries that already participate in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). As of Nov. 17, citizens of those seven countries were able to travel to the United States without a visa for as long as 90 days. As required by Congress, to be able to expand the program, Chertoff certified that the government’s new online system that keeps tabs on visa waiver participants electronically — the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) — was fully up and running. Starting Jan. 12, all people coming to the United States under the VWP will be required to enter their biographical information into ESTA and get an authorization before traveling. Officials say the system will improve security by allowing decisions about whether to let people enter the country under the VWP before their flight’s departure.  David Donahue, deputy assistant secretary for visa services at the State Department, said ESTA was important for moving to a risk assessment program that assesses individual travelers rather than countries generally.The move was also cheered by the travel industry, which believes the VWP expansion would help add to the $122.3 billion that international travelers spent during fiscal 2007.However, the move to expand the VWP was met with criticism from some lawmakers, who said in doing so the Homeland Security Department had moved too quickly to certify the ESTA program.Some members of Congress also expressed dismay that DHS officials had interpreted the department’s responsibility regarding the exit program’s capabilities as requiring the verification of 97 percent of individuals who exit through U.S. airports, rather than whether than verifying that 97 percent of individuals who entered at U.S. airports actually left the country.  “I am concerned that DHS moved hastily to certify the electronic travel authorization before it is capable of doing what it is supposed to,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. It also is not clear when the airlines will update their systems to be able to handle ESTA information.

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