- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

VIENNA, Austria — The United States, seeking to keep out terrorists and other criminals, this week begins a major diplomatic effort to persuade 54 nations to adopt biometric standards when issuing passports to their citizens.

Those standards, regulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization, require every passport to have a machine-readable chip containing the owner’s digital photo, which is protected by a digital signature.

The Bush administration, hoping to minimize the complexity of negotiating separate bilateral agreements with all countries in the world, plans to start with a multilateral accord among the 55 members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), U.S. diplomats said.

“It’s a significant logistical job,” Stephen M. Menekes, the U.S. ambassador to the Vienna, Austria-based organization, said in an interview. “But it’s here, all in place, ready to be used.”

Mr. Menekes said J. Cofer Black, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, “had the idea” when he attended an OSCE conference in June, “and he walked out of here convinced that this was the way to go.”

U.S. diplomats say they hope to sign an agreement at the Dec. 1-2 annual OSCE ministerial meeting in the Dutch city of Maastricht, which would give the event a sufficiently high profile to guarantee the presence of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Mr. Powell skipped the meeting last year because of more pressing responsibilities.

“What we are hopeful is to get a decision at the ministerial that all states will commit to at least begin issuing passports with biometric data by December 2005,” said Katherine Brucker, a political officer at the U.S. mission to the OSCE.

She noted that 21 of the OSCE members — most of them European Union states — are on the Visa Waiver program, which allows their citizens to enter the United States for short periods without first obtaining a visa at an American consulate overseas.

“They will be obligated to start issuing biometric passports by Oct. 26, 2004, if they want to stay in the program,” she said. “They already said it’s moving in this direction.”

In a paper to its fellow OSCE members outlining its proposal, the United States said that “restricting the movement of terrorists and organized criminals is imperative” in the global fight against terror.

“The ability of criminals to forge travel documents — or to falsely obtain genuine ones — remains a serious and ongoing problem,” says the document, a copy of which was given to The Washington Times.

“Harmonized travel document security measures and features among OSCE participating states would greatly enhance security throughout our region. More effective and harmonized issuance standards and controls, combined with bearer-specific security features, would greatly inhibit the movement of terrorists,” it says.

The Bush administration has been repeatedly accused abroad — particularly in Europe — of pursuing a unilateral foreign policy and bullying other nations into submitting to its wishes.

But Miss Brucker said the administration is “trying to identify ways a large multinational organization can actually do something useful in the war on terror,” as in the case of OSCE.

“We’ve actually been quite successful,” she said. “The OSCE operates on consensus, and its decisions are only politically — not legally — binding, but countries do take them seriously.”

Soon after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the OSCE pledged to “prevent the movement of terrorist individuals or groups through effective border controls and controls on issuance of identity papers and travel documents, as well as through measures for ensuring the security of identity papers and travel documents and preventing their counterfeiting, forgery or fraudulent use.”

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