- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday defended the federalization of driver’s licenses and asked a Senate panel not to block the Real ID law, but he urged members to make security changes in the visa waiver program.

Mr. Chertoff said he is “pretty adamant” that the new identification for all U.S. citizens go into effect May 2008.

“We don’t want to keep kicking the can down the road,” Mr. Chertoff told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and ranking member, will sponsor an amendment giving states more time to comply with the Real ID Act.

“It has been two years since the Real ID Act passed, and yet we don’t have detailed regulations or guidance from the department setting forth the standards that the states are going to have to follow,” Miss Collins said.

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, said that if states are mandated to follow federal guidelines, the federal government should carry the cost.

“I can understand the need to get some delay if they were not going to fund it,” Mr. Warner said.

The regulations will be issued later this month and will be subject to a comment period before being finalized.

“I do want to make it clear that one of the reasons it’s taking awhile is we have actually done quite a bit of consultation even in the preliminary stage with state officials and privacy advocates and other folks,” Mr. Chertoff said.

He also said the Senate should legislate changes in the visa waiver program to secure international flights and ensure foreign visitors are not terrorist threats or do not overstay.

“We are not going to sacrifice security for the sake of facilitating travel among our allies,” Mr. Chertoff said.

The waiver program allows visitors from most European countries to travel to the U.S. without a visa for up to 90 days. About 18 million visitors enter the U.S. every year under the program.

“We know that terrorists study our screening and entry procedures and look for ways to do an end-run around these systems,” Mr. Chertoff said.

Officials from the Homeland Security Department want information on travelers before they board airplanes, and countries that comply would be fast-tracked into the waiver program.

Mr. Chertoff said Congress should require participating countries to accept repatriation of its citizens who are ordered to leave the U.S., and encourage those countries to operate an air marshal program.

“Air marshals are our last line of defense against terrorists who manage to board an aircraft, and too few foreign countries have such programs,” Mr. Chertoff said.

Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, said the additional measures will be incorporated into legislation.

“Our public diplomacy probably is at the lowest it has ever been, and modifying this program will mean a great deal to these countries, because every time I talk to an ambassador or foreign minister, they’re up in arms about this thing. They don’t think they’re being treated fairly,” Mr. Voinovich said.

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