A third of the countries whose citizens can travel to the U.S. without a visa aren’t sharing critical terrorism or criminal record data with American authorities, creating a major security risk, the government’s chief watchdog said Monday.
There are 38 countries in the visa waiver program and each of them has agreed to grant the U.S. access to data on stolen or lost passports, on criminal history of would-be travelers, and on terrorism risks. But while all countries share passport data, a third don’t report criminal history and a third fail to share their terrorism and national security records, the Government Accountability Office said.
It’s a mortifying evaluation for a program already under scrutiny by lawmakers who say the visa waiver program provides an avenue for foreign fighters from Europe to get into the U.S.
Some of the countries do share information through other methods, but the GAO said that doesn’t cut it, and sharing the information through the proper channels is “essential for national security.”
“Because many VWP countries have not yet provided information through the agreements — possibly including information about known or suspected terrorists — agencies’ access to this critical information may be limited,” the report concluded.
Just as troubling, GAO investigators said, is Homeland Security officials don’t have a time frame in mind for forcing other countries to comply.
And Homeland Security has failed to submit reports to Congress, leaving lawmakers in the dark over whether some of the countries are living up to their agreements. Two reports are more than a year overdue, the investigation found.
The GAO completed its investigation last year and wrote the report in January, but much of it was deemed too sensitive to release. The report this week was an abridged version.
Homeland Security officials insist they’ve already taken some steps to push for better cooperation, and said they’ll develop timelines to try to get other countries on board. The timelines should be developed by the end of September.
“DHS will take steps to ensure timely reporting as required by statute,” department spokesman Neema Hakim said.
Lawmakers have become worried about the visa waiver program as reports pile up of foreign fighters trained by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, then sent back home to their own countries — including European allies that enjoy visa-free access for short trips to the U.S.
Travelers from waiver countries don’t have to submit to an in-person interview before coming to the U.S., though they face other checks of their histories.
But without proper sharing of information from those home countries, analysts fear the U.S. is missing red flags when it’s making admission decisions.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson took unilateral action last summer, requiring all visa waiver travelers to have e-passports, and expanding the use of federal air marshals on international flights.
In December, Congress passed legislation requiring that travelers who hold passports from visa waiver countries, but who have also visited terrorist-connected countries such as Iran, Iraq, Sudan or Syria, must go through the regular visa process.