- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

U.S. officials are providing more details of the president’s proposal to broaden the Visa Waiver Program, sketching an ambitious plan for an electronic “visa lite” system that would enable travelers to be cleared against terrorism and immigration watch lists before reaching the United States.

In remarks in Europe last week, President Bush addressed complaints from the leaders of several of the post-Soviet democracies about the restrictive requirements for the program, under which citizens of 27 participating nations are entitled to travel to the United States for up to three months for business or pleasure without a visa.

Mr. Bush said officials in Estonia had been “straightforward and very frank” about the issue. He said there was “deep concern” that people from countries fighting alongside the U.S. military in Iraq weren’t able to travel to the United States as freely as they would like.

The issue also arose in Latvia, and had been raised with Mr. Bush by Poland and other former East Bloc countries that are now U.S. allies and in some cases members of NATO and/or the European Union.

Mr. Bush promised last week to send a proposal to Congress to modify the program, “to make sure that nations like Estonia qualify more quickly,” while strengthening security.

On Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security laid down broad outlines of the reform package Mr. Bush would be sending to Congress. They include the new “visa lite” system called an “electronic travel authorization,” which would be issued to passport holders before they traveled to the United States, as well as better information-sharing by new member nations on lost and stolen passports and criminal and terrorist watch lists and higher standards for their document and airport security.

In return for subscribing to these additional security measures, officials said, nations that wanted to join the program would be granted flexibility on other requirements of membership, such as the less than 3 percent refusal rate on visa applications.

“We know that, realistically, there are some [countries] that are not going to make the 3 percent bar,” said Homeland Security Department spokesman Jarrod Agen, adding that the focus of such measures was on a pre-September 11 conception of how the program might be abused, “looking at economic factors and illegal migration.”

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