Image: President George W. Bush speaks about the the Visa Waiver Program
Laszlo Hofer  /  EPA
President Bush speaks Friday about the visa waiver program at the White House as Lithuanian Ambassador to U.S. Audrius Bruzga looks on.
updated 10/17/2008 6:09:08 PM ET 2008-10-17T22:09:08

President Bush, trying to eliminate a major source of contention with allied nations, announced Friday that the United States is rescinding visa requirements for citizens of six European countries and South Korea.

Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and South Korea will be added to the U.S. visa waiver program in about a month. Each of those countries allows U.S. citizens to visit without obtaining a visa.

Some lawmakers worry that visa waivers could make it easier for terrorists to slip into the United States. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said "we know (the program) is exploited by dangerous persons" and noted that the Department of Homeland Security has no system in place to ensure that those who entry the country visa-free ever leave.

"It would be irresponsible, and illegal, to expand the visa waiver program without complying with the mandates of the law," she said. "I believe the administration is taking the wrong approach by expanding this program and admitting new countries with even higher visa refusal rates."

But Bush said all of the countries added to the list agreed to take specific steps, such as coming up with tamper-proof, biometric passports that are difficult to forge.

"For years, the leaders of these nations have explained to me how frustrating it is for their citizens to wait in lines, pay visa fees to take a vacation or make a business trip or visit their families here in the United States," Bush said at a ceremony in the Rose Garden. "These close friends of America told me that it was unfair that their people had to jump through bureaucratic hoops that other allies can walk around. I told them I agree with them."

Cooperation on security threats
The Czech leader was ecstatic over the news.

"It is really the biggest success we could achieve," Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said from Prague. "It is a removal of the last relic of communism and the Cold War."

Jacques Barrot, the European Union's justice and interior affairs commissioner, said in a statement that he welcomes the development and looks forward to the quick admission of remaining EU countries to the visa-waiver program.

Bush also expressed support for efforts by Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Poland and Romania to win visa exemptions.

Before Friday's announcement, the visa waiver program included 27 countries, including most of Western Europe. Exclusion has been a sore point among some new NATO allies that have supported U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of those countries, including Poland, did not make the new list because they could not meet admission requirements.

Bush said the seven countries added Friday agreed to share information about security threats to the U.S. and that their citizens would use a new system that requires travelers to register online ahead of their visits to the United States.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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