French Train Attack Again Raises Questions About Security of the Visa Waiver Program

By Dan Cadman on August 27, 2015

I may be in a minority on this point, but I'm uncomfortable with the visa waiver program. It seems all too easy for something to go horribly wrong and result in the admission of one person, perhaps a group of people, not on anyone's list (despite the proliferation of such lists since 9/11) who could wreak terrible havoc in a very short period of time.

Certainly our lawmakers harbor such fears from time to time. After the January terrorist attacks in France on Charlie Hebdo offices, followed quickly by an attack on a Jewish kosher market also in Paris, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) began pressing for hearings into the workings of the program.

Nothing happened until the middle of March, at which time both the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House's Homeland Security Committee held hearings within days of one another (see here and here).

At the hearings, the usual round of governmental officials and think-tank experts appeared to testify on the importance of the program to international relations and commerce, and its fundamental soundness because of the advanced technology, vast safety net, and incredibly close coordination in place with visa waiver nation partners.

Now another attack has taken place on French soil. By now nearly all of America must know the story of the heroic Americans and Briton who stopped cold the Morocco-born, would-be terrorist Ayoub El Khazzani, literally knocking him unconscious and preventing a train massacre in the process. During initial post-arrest interrogation, he initially made the preposterous claim that it was just going to be a train robbery, a la the Old West I suppose, and that he'd found his large cache of weaponry and ammo abandoned in a park.

But more sobering facts have hemorrhaged into the public arena in the days since: jihadist videos, extensive foreign travel, possible connections with a French Islamic State (IS) cell operating in Turkey, and the fact that he was on the terror lists of several European countries. All of this, and yet at the time he wasn't under surveillance.

Worse, it appears that U.S. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies knew nothing about the intended terrorist, despite his existence on all those lists, including the French "Fiche S" used to alert fellow European Union nations.

What happened to all of the vaunted cooperation and impenetrable electronic nets touted at the congressional hearings as evidence of the security of our visa waiver program (which the Senate voted to expand in June)? Just that quickly, at least in my mind, all of those assurances have turned to dust.

While media accounts tell us that El Khazzani is Morocco-born, they also indicate he resided quite a while in Algeciras, Spain — just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco. I don't know if that means he had gained Spanish citizenship and thus the right to travel visa-free to the United States or not.

But if such a screw-up can happen once, it has probably happened before, and it can happen again. I'm thinking about that cell of French IS jihadists in Turkey El Khazzani was allegedly working with. What if they slipped through the cracks? They would be entitled to visa-free travel into our country.