- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

The United States continues to waver between rhetoric for more secure borders and policies that make our borders more insecure. Take the president’s announcement this week that he will actively engage Congress to modify the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) as a diplomatic carrot to mostly Eastern European countries and perhaps South Korea.

Superficially, this policy seems fair: These countries’ political leaderships support the administration, so why not make it easy for their citizens to come to the United States? At the risk of sounding repetitious, this policy lacks depth, breadth, an in-depth strategic plan, and a reality check about the program itself that terrorists seek to take advantage of easy entree into the United States, and the VWP is one of the easiest ways to do so.

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks, detainee reporting showed al Qaeda leaders increasingly sought out young recruits and others with easy access to the West — U.S. citizens, Canadians, Mexicans and those with access to Visa Waiver passports. September 11 affiliate Zacarias Moussaoui entered as a French citizen of Moroccan descent as a visa waiver tourist. “Shoe-bomber” Richard Reid had visa waiver status.

Also since September 11, the national security risks posed to and by VWP participants have increased. Our allies have suffered significant terrorist attacks by homegrown citizen terrorists in the United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands. Many of the plotters likely had VWP passports. The August 2006 arrests in the United Kingdom of 24 British-born Islamic extremists who apparently sought to sabotage as many as 10 planes should have raised eyebrows about VWP. It didn’t. Meanwhile, Spanish law enforcement documents reportedly showed the now deceased Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had a robust underground terrorist travel operation throughout Europe, inserting Iraqi recruits into Europe while rotating European recruits into Iraq.

Even pre-September 11 terrorists liked the advantage of the VWP program. Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 bombing attack on the World Trade Center, and his co-conspirator Ahmad Ajaj photo-substituted travel documents from Sweden and the United Kingdom, and Ajaj tried to use one at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1992.

In August 2000, Italian authorities wiretapped two men, one known as Es Sayed, (a document forger in Italy) and Abdulsalam Ali Ali Abdulrahman (a Yemeni who traveled on a “diplomatic passport”). In this conversation, the two chat about jihad and a pending operation where the “goal is the sky.” They also discuss fraudulent U.S. entry and the value of marrying a VWP citizen to gain access to a VWP passport:

A: You know the verse that says he who touches Islam or believes himself to be strong against Islam must be hit?

S: God is great and Muhammad is his prophet. They are dogs’ sons.

A: They are. Let me go to Germany and we’ll see: there are beautiful and brave women there, we have Jamal Fekri Jamal Sami. We marry the Americans. …

S: You must be an actor. If they catch you, it’s serious.

What this means is that though the VWP program was built on a legitimate premise to help reallocate scarce State Department resources while offering leniency to friendly countries that met certain criteria, the state of play has changed. Our allies are as vulnerable as we are. With VWP, their vulnerability becomes ours as well. And while it is good to know the administration supports September 11 Commission recommendations regarding prescreening passengers, common standards for travel documents, reporting lost and stolen passports, and heightened airport security, none of these measures change the fact that broadening the VWP broadens our vulnerabilities.

As I testified before the Senate Finance Committee in August, establishing common standards for travel documents does little if border inspectors are barely trained in fraudulent documents and lack the proper equipment to conduct forensic analysis during the 45-second to one-minute inspection time at most air ports of entry. Reporting of lost and stolen passports does little when that information isn’t available in real time to border inspectors doing initial passenger checks. The list goes on.

What it comes down to is this: If we had evidence our borders were secure alongside information indicating terrorists no longer seek to travel to the United States, expanding VWP to friendly countries who meet tough criteria — including that their populations do return to their home country after a visit to the United States — perhaps it would be worthwhile for Congress to spend time debating the president’s proposal.

But we aren’t there. Congress really needs to take simple measures the September 11 Commission recommended to make our country more secure from the fraud that terrorists inevitably take advantage of. They said they would. Let’s make it stick.

Janice Kephart is president of 9/11 Security Solution LLC, and a former counsel to the September 11 Commission. She testifies frequently before Congress.

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