Expert: Visa waiver program a security risk

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WASHINGTON -- One of the travel industry's favorite government policies, the visa waiver program, could make it easier for terrorists to enter the U.S., a security expert has warned.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, Yonah Alexander, director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies, said the vulnerability of the program is that it allows visitors from certain qualifying, low risk, countries to visit the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa, and that means no background check.

In exchange, those countries permit U.S. visitors to enter without a visa.

While the program has been a boon to tourism, Alexander said U.S. authorities have "failed to appreciate the magnitude of the terrorist threat."

But, Peter Becraft, deputy commissioner for the Immigration & Naturalization Service, noted that none of the individuals involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had entered the U.S. under the visa waiver program.

Most had legitimate, legal visas and passports, he said.

Becraft conceded there have been problems with the program, largely due the inconsistent compliance by the participating countries.

And while the U.S. has no viable system in place to determine whether visitors actually leave after 90 days, Becraft said the program is valuable because it allows immigration officials to focus resources on high-risk individuals.

Despite some criticism of the program, no one suggested canceling it, and the testimony from William Norman, president of the Travel Industry Association of America, reiterated the travel industry's long-standing support of the program.

He said, "The rationale that underlies its creation and existence is as sound as ever."

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