What About Additional Screening for Entrants from Visa Waiver Countries?

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration is mandating that airline passengers from a few countries will be selected for special screening.   From the Washington Post:

The Transportation Security Administration notified airline carriers Sunday of the changes for all flights entering the United States — with an emphasis on a “full body pat-down and physical inspection of property” for all people who are citizens of or are flying through or from nations with significant terrorist activity. TSA officials declined to name all the “countries of interest” on Sunday, but confirmed that the directive applies to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The department’s Web site lists Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism. A senior administration official identified the following as terrorism-prone nations or countries of interest to U.S. intelligence agencies: Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.

This seems like a silly half-measure. Why not some additional screening of citizens of countries on the visa waiver program as well?   The visa waiver program lets citizens from 35 countries (mostly in Europe) travel to the United States using only their passports.  I and many Americans benefit from this program because it is reciprocal, meaning when I travel to one of these 35 countries I don’t require a visa, just my passport. 

The thing is, these countries are not exactly immune to al Qaeda-inspired terrorism. (Recall the London Tube bombing, the Spanish railway bombing, the Van Gogh murder.) 

I just worry that should an airline attack come from a European citizen, proponants of ending the visa-waiver program may gain traction. So what is the harm with applying the same additional measures to all travelers? After all, the would-be shoe bomber of 2001 was a British citizen of Jamaican descent. (After that, everyone, had to take off their shoes.)  

I would rather deal with a longer line at the airport than the hassle of having to obtain a visa every time I travel. I suspect I am not alone here.


UPDATE:  A UN Dispatch reader who has some expertise with the Visa Waiver Program writes:

I just saw your UN Dispatch blog post about additional screening for VWP travelers, and while I agree with the general thrust of your argument, it is not correct that VWP travelers “travel to the US using only their passports” anymore. VWP travelers now have to obtain an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA, http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/id_visa/esta/) pre-approval before they travel, which means that their info gets screened against no-fly lists and other lists, and US authorities gain access to the their prior travel history and other valuable information, so they will not automatically gain access to the US if they have had for instance multiple or prolonged visits to countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Iran and the other usual suspects. US authorities have also negotiated enhanced information sharing agreements with VWP countries, so they now have access to a much broader set of information than ever before.
The reform of the VWP program was passed with bipartisan support for this very reason – the US now has enhanced opportunities to ‘connect the dots’ and ensure that citizens of VWP countries do not gain access to the US automatically if any red flags are raised – they have to go through the consular process and obtain a visa if their ESTA application is not approved. Actually, I would not be surprised if Mr. Abdulmutallab had been caught in the process had he been a VWP traveler, rather than someone who obtained a multiple-entry visa several years ago and started showing radical or suspicious behavior later (fx his extended visits to Yemen). The new VWP/ESTA program has a better opportunity to capture real-time developments than the visa process where people can get access to the US for several years at a time after initial scrutiny, but very little follow-up.


Image: Flickr