More than a third of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries have failed to share terrorism identity information as required by agreements between the United States and its overseas partners, exposing a glaring lack of counterterrorism communication, according to a new report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) called GAO’s report “disturbing” in light of the increasingly dangerous terrorist threat environment.
“This is unacceptable,” McCaul stated. “We need to put more pressure on our allies to live up to their obligations or face the prospect of being suspended from the VWP. We passed a law in December demanding that foreign partners live up to these agreements, and I urge the Department of Homeland Security to implement that legislation aggressively.”
The VWP is administered by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and enables eligible citizens or nationals of 38 designated countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without first obtaining a visa. The VWP constitutes one of a few exceptions under the Immigration and Nationality Act in which foreign nationals are admitted into the United States without a valid visa.
The VWP has evolved substantially since its creation in 1986. In January, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a number of additional or revised security criteria for participants in the VWP. The new criteria included requiring use of e-passports for all VWP travelers coming to the United States and the use of the INTERPOL Lost and Stolen Passport Database to screen travelers crossing a Visa Waiver country’s borders.
Additionally, the new requirements expanded the use of US federal air marshals on international flights from Visa Waiver countries to the United States.
“As I have said a number of times now, the current global threat environment requires that we know more about those who travel to the United States,” Johnson said. “This includes those from countries for which we do not require a visa.”
The new enhancements build on a number of changes implemented in September 2015. DHS required travelers from VWP countries to submit additional passport data, contact information and other potential names or aliases in their travel application submitted via the Electronic System for Travel Authorization before they could travel to the US.
Despite these enhancements, lawmakers have expressed concerns that the program could be exploited as a gateway for terrorists to enter the United States. The Department of State has warned that foreign fighter from VWP countries have traveled to Syria and Iraq to train with, support, and join terrorist groups, such as ISIS.
“Thousands of Europeans have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, and most of them are from countries that have visa-free access to the United States,” McCaul said. “These extremists are only a plane-flight away from our shores, which is why overseas counterterrorism cooperation is critical. But if our partners do not share dataabout terror suspects quickly and transparently, such fanatics might be able to slip through the cracks to enter our country.”
VWP countries are required to report lost and stolen passports, share identity information about known or suspected terrorists, and share criminal history information. However, more than a third are not sharing terrorist identity information or criminal history information.
In August 2015, DHS began requiring VWP countries to implement agreements to share terrorist identity and criminal history information, but they did not establish a timeline for instituting the new requirements.
“US agencies have used information that some VWP countries have shared under the required agreements or their equivalents to mitigate this and other threats to US interests,” GAO stated. “However, 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.”
GAO also discovered that DHS has not provided required VWP evaluation reports to Congress on a timely basis. As of October 31, 2015, approximately a quarter of DHS’s most recent VWP congressional reports were submitted, or remained outstanding, 5 or more months past the statutory deadlines.
“DHS’s inconsistency in submitting its congressional reports by the statutory deadlines may have limited Congress’s access to information needed for conducting oversight of the VWP and identifying any modifications to the program necessary to protect US law enforcement and national security interests,” the federal investigators explained.
GAO recommended that DHS specify time frames to fully implement VWP security requirements, including the requirement that countries share information on suspected terrorists. Additionally, DHS needs to improve its timeliness in reporting to Congress on whether VWP countries should continue to participate in the program.
DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations.
"DHS agrees with both recommendations and prior to GAO’s report, DHS had already begun to develop timelines for VWP countries to implement the new security measures we mandated in mid-2015, many of which were codified in law by the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015. DHS will take steps to ensure timely reporting as required by statute," a DHS spokesman told Homeland Security Today in a statement.