- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2003

MAASTRICHT, Netherlands — The United States has backed down from its demand that all European countries begin issuing biometric passports to their citizens by December 2005, settling for machine-readable travel documents instead.

The 55 members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreed yesterday to start issuing encoded passports, by that same deadline, that can be read by special computers at U.S. ports of entry.

The Bush administration, seeking to keep out terrorists and other criminals, began a diplomatic effort in September to persuade the OSCE member states to adopt biometric standards.

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. Biometric passports capture a person’s physical features such as fingerprints, facial features or eye patterns for identification.

But U.S. officials said they soon realized that it was premature to require biometric passports because the technology is not widely available yet.

“It’s unrealistic to put deadlines,” one U.S. official said during the annual OSCE ministerial meeting here. “Biometric technology is not ready for mass production, and you can’t even start estimating the cost when you don’t have the technology.”

A chip typically makes a passport more expensive by $10, and “that’s not too much for some countries, but for others it is,” the official said.

The official said that most OSCE members are issuing machine-readable passports, but at least 10 have yet to begin doing so.

Twenty-one countries — 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 obtaining a visa at an American consulate overseas. The deadline for them is Oct. 26, 2004. All have introduced the standard except for Belgium.

The document adopted yesterday also recommends that the machine-readable passports include a digitized photo, if possible.

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

“The ability of criminals to forge travel documents — or to falsely obtain genuine ones — remains a serious and ongoing problem,” the document said.

“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 said.

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