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03 February 2004

DOS: Few Countries Can Meet Machine Readable Passport Deadline

State's Harty says resulting visa application surge also would be problem

By Anthony Kujawa
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Few of the twenty-seven nations participating in the U.S. visa waiver program have indicated they would be able to meet an October 26, 2004, deadline requiring that they issue machine readable passports that incorporate biometric identifiers, says a State Department official.

Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Maura Harty, testifying before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9-11 Commission, responded to a series of questions on the visa-issuance process, the visa waiver program and outlined steps taken to identify and eliminate vulnerabilities in the U.S. visa system.

Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) citizens of certain countries are able to enter the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. Harty said these travelers account for 57 percent of overseas tourist spending in the United States, or $39.6 billion in 2000.

The USA Patriot Act requires that VWP travelers present a machine-readable passport at U.S. ports of entry effective October 1, 2003, in order to be admitted to the country without a visa, but Secretary of State Colin Powell, in consultation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, extended this requirement until October 26, 2004 for twenty-one of the WVP countries.

According to a Department of Homeland Security fact sheet, by October 26, 2004, countries participating in the VWP are mandated by the USA Patriot Act to certify that they have programs to issue their nationals machine readable passports that incorporate biometric identifiers that comply with standards established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Any passport issued after October 26, 2004, must be an ICAO-compliant travel document that uses biometrics, if the bearer applies for admission into the United States under the VWP, said the fact sheet.

The U.S. statute gave the decision on which biometric would be required to ICAO, which decided in May 2003 on facial recognition as the globally interoperable biometric for machine-assisted identity confirmation, leaving little time for countries to develop a capacity to issue the new machine readable passports, said Harty.

Biometrics, according to an ICAO press release, is a means of identifying a person by biological features unique to an individual, using advanced computerized recognition techniques. Facial recognition technology automates the process of using a tradition "photo ID," using a camera to capture the image of the face, while a computer validates facial characteristics. ICAO is still finalizing some of the technical standards for facial recognition.

In response to a question on the chances VWP countries would meet the October 26, 2004, deadline, Harty said, "Very few will make it. Very few at this point have indicated to us that they will have an ability to do that."

"There are robust efforts in place to put such programs in place, but most will not be ready by October 26, 2004," she said.

According to State Department estimates, an additional 5.3 million visa interviews would need to be conducted if the October 26 statutory deadline were to remain in place and countries were unable on an individual basis to continue to participate or to comply with the program as it exists, Harty told the commission in response to a question.

"That would be a daunting, daunting challenge for us," said Harty.

"Given our current resources, we would not be able to in fact fulfill those obligations the way we would want to," added Harty.

"It would be a difficult management challenge for us ... to hire and train and perhaps even build brick and mortar facilities to interview people to bridge the gap between the October 26, 2004, deadline and the time when the countries would be able to come online," she added.

Asked about the assistant secretary's testimony alluding to a need to possibly extend the deadline, State Department Consular Affairs spokesman Stuart Patt clarified that the State Department does not have the authority to extend the deadline. "Only the Congress can do that by legislation," he said.

"While Secretary of State Colin Powell had the authority to extend the machine readable requirement [of October 1, 2003], he does not have the authority to extend beyond October 26 [2004] the biometric or machine readable requirements," said Patt.

Asked if the State Department would request congressional action, Patt said the Department has not yet made any formal request of Congress. "The assistant secretary was using that opportunity to alert the Congress as to what is the situation," he said.

"As long as the country has a program in place working towards a biometric passport, then their citizens who already have machine readable passports will continue to be able to enter the United States visa waiver with those machine readable passports, if those passports are issued before October 26," added Patt.

"But any passport issued on or after October 26, in order for it to be used as a visa waiver travel document must have a biometric identifier," he said. "If it does not, the individual will have to get a visa."

The 27 countries currently in the VWP are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

More information about the VWP is available at: http://travel.state.gov/vwp