By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/13/2005 7:49:49 PM ET 2005-07-13T23:49:49

Members of Congress with responsibility for homeland security were just beginning Wednesday to assess the implications of the news from Britain that the suicide bombers who killed 52 people in London last week were British citizens and thus would not have been subject to face-to-face visa interviews to enter the United States.

Since the United Kingdom is one of the 27 countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, jihadists from Britain — as long as they were British citizens — could potentially enter the United States with less scrutiny than the U.S. government gives to visa applicants from al Qaida originating countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Wednesday, “I’ve been concerned about the Visa Waiver Program generally. I think this finding in London just deepens that concern and should lead our government to work very aggressively with the countries that enjoy the benefits of that program to end it — or to begin to curtail it and put some rules on it. It is a big opening in our security apparatus.”

The 27 countries in the Visa Waiver Program include nations with large Islamic populations and from which jihadists and suicide bombers have come: not only the United Kingdom, but Spain (the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings), France (home of Zacarias Moussaoui, who was part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy), and Germany (home of Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta).

Unlike visa applicants, who must undergo an interview with an official at a U.S. embassy or consulate, travelers entering the United States in the Visa Waiver Program go through only a brief interview and a check of criminal and terrorist databases at the port of entry.

Re-thinking in Congress
Robert Leiken, the director of the Immigration and National Security Programs at The Nixon Center in Washington, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that “the growing nightmare of officials at the Department of Homeland Security is passport-carrying, visa-exempt mujahideen coming from the United States' western European allies.”

House Homeland Security Committee chairman, Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., said Wednesday he did not know if changes were needed in the Visa Waiver Program.

But he said the news from London “has been the basis in the last 48 hours for committee staff and members to focus directly on the consequences of the London bombings and to put this question in stark relief.”

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Visa Waiver countries would be required to put tamper-resistant digital photographs on newly issued passports, beginning on Oct. 26.

Biometrics at issue
Cox said that Congress had mandated that visitors entering under the Visa Waiver Program to have biometric identifiers on their passports, but he added he was dissatisfied with the current level of biometric data.

“I believe the biometric requirement as it’s being interpreted is inadequate, it’s not an authentic biometric,” Cox said. “What they are calling a biometric is making the photograph on your passport a digital photo instead of an analogue photo, but that doesn’t really make it a biometric.”

Fraud, or one person posing as another, was still possible, he said, even with digital photos.

But the London news pointed to a different problem: the information revealed so far indicates that the four suicide bombers in London had no prior records as terrorists or criminals so they would not have likely shown up on watch lists.

In its debate over homeland security Wednesday, Cox’s House committee was focused on the scientific complexities of bioterrorism with a discussion of modified anthrax and other toxins, not on the people who commit acts of terror.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is scheduled to testify before Cox’s committee on Thursday and will likely face questions about the London bombing.

Rumsfeld comment on U.K. as terrorist base
Indicating the political sensitivity of the fact that Britain is now the home of suicide bombers, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at a press briefing Tuesday that Islamic terrorists' goal “is to build and secure new bases for extremists and violent terrorism acts.”

When a reporter asked whether there was now a terrorism base in the United Kingdom, Rumsfeld quickly added, “I did not mean to leave the impression that the terrorists intended to try to make the U.K. a terrorist haven.”

Leiken noted in his Foreign Affaris article that "the members of the Hamburg cell that captained the September 11 attacks came by air from Europe and were treated by the State Department as travelers on the Visa Waiver Program, just like Moussaoui and Richard Reid, the shoe bomber.”

Leiken recommended that the United States “insist that the airlines require U.S.-bound transatlantic travelers to submit passport information when purchasing tickets. Such a measure would give the new U.S. National Targeting Center time to check potential entrants….”

Costs with benefits
But changes in the Visa Waiver Program would have costs as well as terrorism-deterring benefits.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday the news from Britain was “cause for grave concern, not only because of the Visa Waiver Program, but because they (terrorists) could be home-grown in any country.”

But she added that for visa applicants from countries outside the Visa Waiver Program, “some of what is happening with withholding visas has been really harmful to the education system in our country. Our institutions of higher learning do not have the vitality that they had before, when we had a freer exchange. I’d enlarge the issue to say we need a comprehensive approach to immigration and visas that takes into consideration first and foremost national security but also the fact that we are a democratic country.”

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