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Homeland Security Official Grilled on Visa Waivers

WASHINGTON (CN) - A program that waives the visa process for certain foreign travelers faced heavy scrutiny Thursday as members of Congress called for an overhaul to prevent the system's exploitation by terrorists.

Visa waivers allow citizens of 38 countries traveling to the United States for tourism or business trips lasting up to 90 days to forgo the lengthy process of applying for a visa.

Greater scrutiny of the program emerged after the Paris terror attacks and the shooting in San Bernardino last week, both of which were carried out by terrorists who pledged loyalty to the Islamic State.

While the Paris attackers are believed to have trained in Syria, U.S. investigators are still unsure whether the San Bernardino killers, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook, carried out a foreign plot or were merely inspired by ISIL's message.

A new wrinkle emerged this week when the FBI confirmed that Pakista-born Malik had radicalized at least a year before she came to the United States last year on a K-1 fiance visa. Farook was a U.S. citizen of Pakistani heritage, born in Illinois. Both were killed within hours of carrying out the deadly Dec. 2 attack on San Bernardino's Inland Regional Center.

With some worried about the adequacy of security screenings both for visa-waiver travelers and traditional visa applicants, the House voted Tuesday to bar travelers from Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Sudan - or anyone who has traveled to those countries in the last five years - from entering the United States through the visa-waiver program.

Iranian-American advocacy organization NIAC Action has denounced the bill as "discriminatory" and "draconian," saying it could trigger reciprocal restrictions.

At a hearing Thursday of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Ken Gude, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, cautioned members of Congress not to play politics of fear.

"What is unacceptable and dangerous to American security are the kind of rhetoric and policy proposals that attempt to exploit Americans' reasonable fears for political gain and try to push a jittery population toward increased hatred and prejudice," Gude said.

That kind of "sensational fear mongering" plays into the hands of Islamic State militants, he added.

Kelli Ann Burriesci from the Department of Homeland Security told the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that the visa-waiver program is safe, but said it will still benefit from the overhauls outlined in the recently passed House legislation.

"Waiver does not mean waiving security," Burriesci said, adding that all visa-waiver-program travelers undergo extensive security checks before they can board a plane.

Upon their arrival, officers with Customs and Border Protection screen travelers again against domestic and international counterterrorism and law-enforcement databases, she added.

Visa-waiver countries are also required to share security information with U.S. intelligence officials about any threats their citizens pose, she said.

Burriesci noted that Homeland Security already strengthened the program after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - ensuring that visa-waiver travelers fill out an online vetting form - the electronic system for travel authorization - before traveling to the United States.

That form collects biographic information, which gets vetted against U.S. intelligence databases, she said. The data collected gets vetted on a daily basis, Burriesci added.


"If a prospective VWP traveler does not submit this information or is denied travel authorization, he may not board a plane for the United States," Burriesci said, abbreviating visa-waiver program.

Customs and Border Protection has denied 165,000 travelers entry to the country since the U.S. visa waiver program started using this form, according to the Homeland Security official's testimony.

In 2014, Homeland Security also added "enhanced data fields" to the application - an improvement that Burriesci said lets the agency identify a larger number of visa-waiver travelers with potential ties to terrorism.

Burriesci did not elaborate, however, on what those fields consist of, or how they work to help identify travelers with ties to terrorism.

Testifying to more enhancements this year, Burriescci said visa-waiver countries must now report the return of foreign fighters to agencies like Interpol, and screen against its database of lost and stolen passports.

More enhancements are on the horizon, too.

Next year visa-waiver travelers will need to dispose of their paper passports, Burriesci said. The United States will now require electronic passports that have biometric identifiers.

Visa-waiver countries also undergo review - at least every two years - to ensure high security standards, Burriesci said.

Most members of the largely combative House committee voiced dissatisfaction with the testimony.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., grilled Burriesci about why the Transportation Security Administration cleared 73 individuals with possible terrorism links for work in secure areas of U.S. airports.

A June 4, 2015, report by Homeland Security's inspector general attributed the lapse to TSA's lack of access to the full gamut of interagency, terrorism-related information.

Claiming she lacked authority to divulge these figures, Burriesci demurred when asked for specifics related to the number of people on the terrorism watch list and the no-fly list, as well as how many travelers have overstayed their visas.

A 2006 Pew Research Center study determined that nearly 45 percent of unauthorized migrants entered the country legally but overstayed their visas.

Members of the House committee expressed concern and doubt about the ability to track people who have overstayed their visas.

"How many visa overstays does it take to take down the Twin Towers?" Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., asked, expressing disbelief that she could not say how many people have overstayed their visas.

Meadows cited 2013 statistics from the Government Accountability Office, which estimated nearly 1 million visa overstays. After a peppering of hostile questioning, Burriesci excused herself for about 15 minutes to try to fetch some figures. She returned with an estimate of 2 percent overstays for visa-waiver travelers.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., hinted that many U.S. entry points don't have the ability to confirm identity through biometric data, including fingerprints. Burriesci said that every person coming into the country, whether on a visa or through the visa-waiver program, has their fingerprints taken.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for verification of Burriesci's statement, but online material says the agency does collect fingerprints from all visa and visa-waiver travelers between the ages of 14 and 79 at U.S. ports of entry.

In addition to Rep. Mica disregarding Burriesci's testimony, another witness - Janice Kephart, the director of homeland-security solutions at Morphotrak - shook her head no as Burriesci spoke.

Morphotrak, a biometric-technology company, provides the FBI, the Defense Department, the Department of State and the TSA with biometric-identity-verification technologies.

Kephart recommended the immediate implementation of biometric exit capability at U.S. ports of entry, an immediate switch to electronic passports, and facial-recognition checks.

As Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., noted, Kephart's company happens to provide some of these technologies.

In the other chamber of Congress meanwhile, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., rebuked GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump for his recent calls to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S., saying doing so would be un-American.

The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed Leahy's measure this afternoon.

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