Is the Visa Waiver Program the Soft Underbelly of Homeland Security?

By Dan Cadman on January 22, 2015

The world is an unsettled place, and if the spate of terrorist attacks and raids in past months — in Europe most recently, and the United States, Canada, and Australia before that — are any indicator, it's getting worse.

Millions marched in France to express solidarity (and thus their support for free speech) on behalf of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, site of a massacre of staff for having offended Islamist sensibilities, and many in countries throughout the Islamic world responded by holding demonstrations of their own, burning French flags, condemning the magazine, and justifying its attack. In Mali, they go further by destroying churches and killing Christians.

Most concerning, though, from an American homeland security perspective, is that many citizens in the European Union (EU) nations are radicalized Muslims, a surprising number of whom have traveled to Syria and other hotspots where they have received training, engaged in violent acts, and returned home tightly coiled and ready to spring. Carrying a EU passport pretty much guarantees them the right to enter the United States without need to go through a visa interview or vetting by State Department consular officers.

It might be expected that pro-enforcement types like me would express concern over the program. But when a liberal like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) calls it an "Achilles heel" and when President Obama's own Homeland Security Secretary, Jeh Johnson, starts sounding the alarm bells, it's time for everyone to get worried.

Unfortunately, I've heard little in the way of substantive plans to seal this gaping hole in our web of post-9/11 security measures in the expressions of concern from both the right and left that have surfaced recently. Secretary Johnson's idea of a plan is to add a few data fields for collection and to "tighten the security assurances the United States has with countries that participate in the waiver program." As strategies go, that's so egregiously deficient as to border on malfeasance.

How about this instead? Require anyone planning to travel without a visa to submit to advance vetting in return for issuance of a "trusted traveler" identification card that can be used for presentation to inspectors upon arrival at a land, sea, or air port of entry. The ID card can be made fraud- and tamper-proof and machine readable, thus permitting quick swipes, both pre-departure and at the ports of entry, for continuous real-time matching against the most recent entries into the various terrorism and no-fly databases maintained by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Our lawmakers and the executive branch claim to want to work together whenever and wherever possible. Where immigration is concerned, my gauge is that those opportunities will be limited because of past presidential overreach into the legislative arena. But changing the visa waiver program presents a significant opportunity to cooperate while at the same time making the homeland safer. Isn't that what it's all about?