Easy entry to U.S. by citizens of 27 nations raising concerns
WASHINGTON - The arrests of what appear to be British radicals plotting to blow up U.S.-bound airliners highlight major holes in a system that allows citizens of friendly nations easy entry to the United States.
Citizens of 27 nations, including Great Britain, can enter the United States without a visa or any special scrutiny, although entrants are electronically fingerprinted.
Before issuing a visa, U.S. consulates abroad usually run background checks and interview applicants, who typically must present identity and travel documents to inspectors with access to security databases.
Presuming the would-be bombers were not on a terrorist-watch list, they would have been able to board U.S.-bound flights from England with only a valid passport.
"Any al-Qaida leader would have concluded that this is a perfectly logical way of launching an attack," said Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution homeland security expert.
Some of the West European countries on the visa-waiver list are struggling with homegrown Islamic extremists. A Nixon Center study of Islamic radicals found twice as many were French as were Saudi; more were British than Middle Eastern.
Terrorists Zacarias Moussaoui, Richard Reid and Ramzi Yousef boarded flights to the United States with passports issued by countries participating in the visa waiver program.
Homeland Security officials say they have no plans to radically change the program.
"We continue to work with the countries in the program on increasing security, but we don't want to impede legitimate traffic," said Jarrod Agen, spokesman with the Department of Homeland Security.
The Visa Reform Act of 2002 and other improvements require that new passports be machine-readable and carry biometric data, such as digital photos, that would make them difficult to alter. Some of those improvements won't be complete until October.
Even many critics of the visa waiver program agree that eliminating it would be impractical, if not damaging, to global economies and relations with allies.
Billions of dollars in tourism and trade depend on easy passage among nations in the program. About 15 million foreigners enter the U.S. annually under the program.
Europe is home to as many as 20 million Muslims, about 5 percent of the population, and that is expected to double by 2025. Many, poor and middle-class alike, have not assimilated into the larger culture. This has bred radicalism in communities that enjoy western political freedoms.
"The very isolation of these diaspora communities obscures their inner workings, allowing mujahideen to fund-raise, prepare and recruit for jihad with a freedom available in few Muslim countries," Robert Leiken, director of Immigration and National Security Program at the Nixon Center, wrote in a recent essay Europe's Angry Muslims.
Countries with liberal citizenship laws compound the problem by opening pathways to easy travel for potential terrorists who may not have been born as citizens of visa waiver program countries.
Belgium, Sweden and Denmark allow some foreign nationals to obtain citizenship and a visa waiver program passport after as little as three years of residence.
In Ireland and Italy, also on the waiver list, citizenship is available to almost anyone with one grandparent or other relative who is a citizen.