Wednesday, November 29, 2006

TALLINN, Estonia — President Bush said yesterday he will push Congress for a “loosening” of requirements for foreigners to visit the United States without a visa, pitting him against those who have called for the program instead to be tightened or even scrapped altogether after September 11.

The Visa Waiver Program allows visitors with valid passports from 27 approved countries to enter the United States for up to 90 days without a visa. That makes tourism and business travel easier by eliminating the need for a visa, though such travelers can avoid a security screening.

After meeting with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves in Tallinn, Mr. Bush said he will press Congress to revamp the program to allow more countries to join.

“I’m going to work with our Congress and our international partners to modify our Visa Waiver Program,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s a way to make sure that nations like Estonia qualify more quickly for the program and, at the same time, strengthen the program’s security components.”

But the proposed expansion would run athwart concerns that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot keep up with the 27 countries already approved, as the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’ investigative branch, found in a July report.

“DHS cannot effectively monitor the law enforcement and security risks posed by visa waiver countries on a consistent, ongoing basis because it has not provided [the Office of International Enforcement] with adequate staffing and resources,” GAO investigators concluded, adding they also found “weaknesses” in how DHS talks with overseas posts working on visa issues.

European Union officials have complained that while U.S. nationals can visit any of the 25 EU member states without a visa, only 15 of these countries receive reciprocal privileges from the United States. Mr. Bush discussed the problem with EU officials at a July summit in Vienna, Austria.

Exclusion from the waiver program is a point of contention in former communist bloc countries such as Estonia, Poland and Hungary that have become staunch U.S. allies in the war on terrorism.

Mr. Bush said the economic and political progress those nations have made earns them the privilege of participating in the program.

“Both the [Estonian] president and the prime minister made this a important part of our discussions,” he said. “They made it clear to me that if we’re an ally in NATO, people ought to be able to come to our country in a much easier fashion.”

Mr. Bush said he wanted to “assure members of Congress that in loosening the visa-waiver issue, or changing the visa-waiver issue, that we’ll still be able to protect our country from people who would exploit the Visa Waiver Program to come to our country to do harm.”

Among the current requirements is that the visa-refusal rate from a country be below 3 percent and that they have a low rate of travelers who violate the 90-day limit.

Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Mr. Bush will ask Congress for the power to waive the 3 percent rule for some countries as long as those nations meet new enhanced security requirements.

The waiver program recently began requiring passports to include a machine-readable computer chip containing passport data as a security measure.

The GAO warned that tightening or ending the Visa Waiver Program could lead to other countries retaliating and requiring visas for U.S. visitors. But the investigators said the program has drawbacks because travelers from visa-waiver countries don’t have to be screened as closely as other travelers — a concern Michael W. Cutler, a retired Immigration and Naturalization Service agent, said shows why everyone entering the United States should have to obtain a visa.

Without it, the only mandatory screening is done by a Customs and Border Protection inspector who is trying to move visitors along the entry line, Mr. Cutler said. He said the visa application process provides investigators leads to go after terror suspects. Lying on the application is punishable by a stiff prison sentence — a charge authorities can often make stick even in cases where they can’t prove terrorist or criminal involvement.

The former agent said the examples of would-be shoe bomber Richard C. Reid and this summer’s foiled plot to blow up airplanes headed from London to the United States, show the vulnerabilities.

“These terrorists were able to gain access to airliners and potentially our nation without first applying for visas. This is because Great Britain, the country of citizenship for all of these terrorists, participates in the Visa Waiver Program,” Mr. Cutler said.

Half of all trips by non-immigrant foreigners into the United States are people traveling on passports from visa-waiver countries.

In a statement yesterday Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff did not say how his department will handle the increased demands but described the new security enhancements.

“We envision a secure travel-authorization system that will allow us to receive data about travelers from countries before they get on the plane,” he said. “Countries that are willing to assist the United States in doing effective checks on travelers could be put on track to enter the program soon.”

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