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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 12/4/15

Visa Waiver Program Has Same Weak Links; Mass Surveillance and Terrorist Watchlisting Don't Work

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Author 3948
Message Coleen Rowley

Reprinted from by Coleen Rowley

Co-written with Georgianne Nienaber

Politicians are scoring points with a frightened U.S. population by hyping the supposed danger of letting in up to 10,000 Syrian refugees, but a much greater or actual risk exists in the current gaps in a visa-waiver program. Yesterday's massacre in San Bernardino again underscores the ineffectiveness of relying upon bulk data collection and intelligence agencies' watch-listing processes to "keep us safe from terrorism."

All the hyped political angst regarding the possible resettling of a few thousand Syrian refugees stands in stark contrast to the relative lack of congressional concern about the equally, if not more inherently problematic Visa Waiver Program (VWP). This longstanding, historically-proven dangerous, but little understood Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-administered program, allowed 21,231,396 foreign visitors from 38 countries to pass through U.S. ports of entry with minimal to no screening according to 2013 official records (the most recent data published).

The numbers should give pause, since visitors admitted each year via the VWP are over 2,000 times greater than the "up to 10,000" Syrian refugees proposed a few months ago by President Barack Obama for eventual resettlement in the U.S. The number of VWP entrants is nearly 20,000 times greater than the 1,300 Syrians previously allowed into the U.S. since the conflict began over four years ago. The VWP program allows 300 times more foreign visitors into the U.S. than refugees from all countries combined.

Of those entering under the VWP: 293,217 came from Belgium; 1,804,035 from France; and 512,299 from Sweden. Even before the more recent "Charlie Hebdo" and Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, it was known that the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Sweden were emerging as home bases for Islamic extremists joining the Islamic State (also known as ISIL, ISIS or Daesh). So do these countries, among others in the waiver program, offer potentially easy access to the United States for some of their increasingly radicalized citizens now supporting known terrorist organizations?

What We Know and Don't Know

We suggested last year that the United States has a gaping hole in its DHS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) monitoring. There had been little public discussion of the VWP, a program that 38 countries currently participate in. Participating countries agree to loosen travel restrictions in order to encourage tourism, trade and business travel.

Before traveling to the U.S. by sea or air, VWP participants must fill out an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) form online. It costs a modest $14 and assumes that the applicant is telling the truth about previous visa denials and run-ins with the law.

Since November 2014, new information, including additional passport data, contact information, and potential names or aliases, is required. Once the applicant has the ESTA application completed, he/she needs no other paperwork other than a valid passport from one of the participating countries.

"Upon landing in the U.S.," according to the optimistic March 2015 testimony of the Director of the Heritage Foundation Steven P. Bucci, "individuals must provide biographic and biometric information that is checked against additional sets of biometric databases controlled by DHS (Automated Biometric Identification System or IDENT) and the FBI (Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System or IAFIS). The individual is once again checked through TECS, the ATS, and the APIS and undergoes additional inspection if necessary. At any point in this process, security officials can prevent an individual from entering the U.S. if they are deemed a security risk or ineligible for travel to the U.S."

Testifying before the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, Committee on Homeland Security, in the U.S. House of Representatives, Bucci made it sound like a "robust screening process" but what we don't know, what is critically missing from his rosy prognosis, is how many of the over 1.1 million terrorist suspects that have made it onto key "terrorist watch lists" can be conclusively identified by biometric data alone, as Bucci's testimony suggests.

Could it be more likely that the only real barrier to entrance to the United States is the Customs and Border Protection officer at the port of entry, who stamps the passport, with or without a few questions, and with little means of verification? Unless a match comes up with someone entered on the Terrorist Watch List or the no-fly list, the VWP traveler is free to enter for up to 90 days or vanish underground.

The Heritage Foundation director's testimony included an impressively complicated chart (below) about how the VWP system is supposed to work, but the chart raises as many questions as it answers. It certainly doesn't answer the most important questions about the actual effectiveness of the watch listing, checking and flagging process.

The ESTA regulations also have gaping enforcement holes. In 2010 (the latest data available), 364,000 travelers were able to travel under the VWP program without even the minimum verified ESTA approval by airlines, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). No one knows to what extent these passengers presented a security risk or if they left the country after the required 90-day limit on their stays.

Historically, it must be noted that Al Qaeda- aligned terrorists have already used the VWP to gain access to soft targets in the United States. French citizen and later convicted 9/11 participant Zacarias Moussaoui traveled on the VWP before he enrolled in Oklahoma and Minneapolis flight training schools prior to 9/11.

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Retired FBI Agent and former Minneapolis Division Legal Counsel.
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