- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 17, 2008

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says terrorists want to use Europe as a starting point for attacks against the United States and that new screening measures are warranted for airline passengers who travel here under a visa-waiver program.

“One of the things we’ve become concerned about lately is the possibility of Europe becoming a platform for a threat against the United States,” Mr. Chertoff said yesterday in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp.’s “World News America.”

“A lot of what we are trying to do is find a way to better vet people coming in from Europe without impeding the flow of travel or trade, which has been a very important part of our economy,” Mr. Chertoff said.

The program allows residents of 27 countries, which include most of Western Europe, to travel to the United States for tourism or business trips without having to obtain a visa so as not to impede the flow of trade or travel.

However, there is no mechanism for customs and border officials to check the security status of airline passengers on overseas flights to the United States.

“That means the first time we encounter them is when they arrive in the United States and that creates a very small window of opportunity to check them out,” Mr. Chertoff said.

Electronic travel notification is one way to close that loophole, by allowing passengers to obtain clearance through online registration in advance of an airplane-ticket purchase for security checks, Mr. Chertoff said.

“I see an al Qaeda that’s evolving. I don’t see any diminishment of the threat, and my concern is that we not relax and let the enemy get ahead of us,” Mr. Chertoff said.

“We have watched the rise of homegrown terrorism. We are obviously mindful of the Madrid bombings, the attempted bombings in Germany, and that suggests to us that the terrorists are increasingly looking to Europe as both a target and a platform for terrorist attacks.”

William Knocke, Homeland Security Department spokesman, said online authorization would use the same information passengers provide to airlines — name, birth date, address and credit-card number — and an authorization code would be issued to travelers over the Internet to be used later to purchase airline tickets.

“It will be a real plus when it comes to security. It will give our front-line folks like the Customs and Border [Protection] more time to make assessments about whether a person traveling here merits additional security,” Mr. Knocke said.

He added that privacy is a concern and that European allies will be provided “the same levels of privacy consideration that we provide our own citizens.”