Assume the Position

Saturday, January 03, 2004
There Are No Safe Countries or Nationalities

At the end of my last post I suggested it's time to end Visa Wavier Program (VWP). Michael Gersh (Zero Base Thinking) left a comment disagreeing, which I'll reproduce in full:

It is not going to happen. This nation can not be changing visa rules to try to prevent a type of attack that has never been attempted here. Ease of travel is one of the important reasons that our economy functions as well as it does, and making visas more difficult to obtain would have a deleterious effect upon the most powerful economy in the world.

That being said, IF such an attack is ever carried out you will be in a position to say that you told them so... still, I hope that they do not listen to you. You propose an innumerate response to a theoretical threat. The costs, both hard and soft, of compliance with a more restrictive visa regime would be far in excess of the cost of one successful attack; the plain fact is that we must do cost/benefit analysis on any security measures. We can not make ourselves immune to every threat. We must pick and choose which threats are imminent and which are not. Otherwise, we might decide to have a jet fighter following every airliner, in case we decide that they have been hijacked, and must be shot down. Of course we must do something, but not everything that we can identify to avoid a possible threat.

First, I have no desire to be able to say "I told you so" on such a topic.

Second, I agree that security measures should be analyzed before implementation. I do not, however, know that a complete analysis of the VWP would show it to be more costly to eliminate (or indefinitely suspend) the program than to keep it. Consider the basic assumption underlying its creation: citizens of VWP eligible countries (basically Western democracies plus a few others) were of such significantly lower risks for criminal activity, illegal overstays/immigration, and terrorism that just holding a passport issued by those countries would be sufficient to allow unfettered entry into the US.

This Observer article calls that assumption into question (via Jeff Jarvis):

Intelligence officials hunting Islamist terrorists suspected of planning attacks on British Airways flights believe they may be carrying legitimate American, UK or other European passports to try to beat airport security.

According to US sources, last week's cancellation of the BA flights to Washington and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia was triggered by fear that terrorists with legitimate 'clean aliases' were planning attacks over the New Year holiday


In one call, an unidentified jihadist tells a colleague: 'We need foreigners. We have Albanians, Swiss and English... all that is important is that they are of a high cultural level ... businessmen, professors, engineers, doctors and teachers.'

The focus on well-educated, capable and highly committed 'foreigners' was a hallmark of the al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, which ran a strict selection policy for its students.


Analysts believe that al-Qaeda and other allied jihadist terrorist networks have stepped up efforts in the last 12 months to recruit US, UK and other foreign nationals who can more easily penetrate the heightened security environment that has been in place since the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.


In recent months mounting evidence has emerged that the recruitment effort has been focused on disaffected members of communities that have been granted asylum in the UK and elsewhere, some of whom have been recruited for suicide operations in Iraq, including a number of British-based Islamist radicals.

The Observer revealed last November that a martial arts expert from Sheffield was used in a suicide mission inside Iraq.

In April, two British students staged a suicide attack in Tel Aviv, again using their British passports to reach their target in Israel.

Security measures for travellers from non-VWP eligible countries are supposed to change:

DALLAS, Texas (AP) -- Foreigners entering U.S. airports and seaports -- except those from Western Europe and a handful of other countries -- will soon have their fingerprints scanned and their photographs snapped as part of a new program designed to enhance border security. The program, to be up and running on January 5 at all 115 airports that handle international flights and 14 major seaports, will let Customs officials instantly check an immigrant or visitor's criminal background.

The program, called US-VISIT, or U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, will check an estimated 24 million foreigners each year, though some will be repeat visitors.

The only exceptions will be visitors from 28 countries -- mostly European nations whose citizens are allowed to come to the United States for up to 90 days without visas.

Inkless fingerprints will be taken and checked instantly against a national digital database for criminal backgrounds and any terrorist lists. The process will be repeated when the foreigners leave the country as an extra security measure and to ensure they complied with visa limitations.

Although the photos and fingerprinting does not apply to VWP eligibles, there was supposed to be a change to the VWP to increase security—a new requirement that only people with machine-readable passports (MRP) could use the VWP was supposed to take effect October 1, 2003. That requirement has been postponed for a year for 21 countries.

The Secretary of State has granted a postponement until October 26, 2004, as the date by which Visa Waiver Program travelers from 21 countries must present a machine-readable passport at a U.S. port of entry to be admitted to the country without a visa. The Department of State consulted with the Department of Homeland Security before making this decision.

The countries for which the postponement has been granted are: Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Each country to which this postponement was granted made a formal request and certified that it is making progress toward ensuring that machine readable passports are available to its nationals and that it has taken appropriate measures to protect against misuse of its non-machine-readable passports.

Five other eligible countries did not request a postponement of the effective date, because virtually all of their citizens already have machine-readable passports. Those countries are Andorra, Brunei, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Slovenia. As of October 1, 2003, visa waiver travelers from those five countries must present either a machine-readable passport or a United States visa.

Belgium, which is also a visa waiver country, was not eligible to receive this extension. Belgian nationals who wish to travel under the auspices of the Visa Waiver Program have been required to present a machine-readable passport since May 15, 2003. This requirement was stipulated in the Department of Justice's review of Belgium's continued eligibility to participate in the Visa Waiver Program in February 2003.

The Secretary's authority to postpone the effective date for a visa waiver country's citizens to present a machine-readable passport is contained in the USA Patriot Act, which legislated the requirement for visa waiver travelers.

Citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries are permitted to enter the United States for general business or tourist purposes for a maximum of 90 days without needing a visa.

While the machine-readable passports aid in database queries and updates, I don't think they do anything to overcome the basic problem of a terrorist having a legitimate MRP from a VWP eligible country.

Nor do MRPs do anything to improve security during transit; the entry decision and scanning the MRP is done by DHS immigration inspectors at the port of entry. There are a host of reasons a person may be ineligible for a visa. Without the VWP, ineligibles should be denied a visa and never board a flight to the US. With the VWP, ineligibles may board a flight only to be denied entry after the flight has landed, but that does little good if they hijacked or blew up the flight before it landed.

Finally, requiring visas might also do something to lessen the flight cancellations caused by mistaken identity:

The Wall Street Journal Europe, quoting French officials, reported yesterday that FBI information in one case confused a child's name with that of the head of a Tunisian-based terror group.

Another 'terrorist' was a Welsh insurance agent, while a third was an elderly Chinese woman who once ran a Paris restaurant, the paper said. The other three on the list were French citizens, it said.

The ministry spokesman said: 'The FBI worked with family names and some family names sound alike.' He said some names had been transliterated from Arabic, which uses a different alphabet from French and English.

'The difficulty is compounded when you have no first name or date of birth.'

The issuance of a visa should give DHS a heads-up on a person's intent to visit the US; without it, all the security personnel have is basically a surname from the passenger manifest to match against the phonetically spelled watch-list.

Original content copyright © 2002-2005 Lynxx Pherrett. All rights reserved.