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The U.S. Senate voted to delay by one year the looming Oct. 26 deadline for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries to begin issuing machine-readable passports. The House of Representatives has already approved a one-year extension.
The VWP allows visitors from Europe, Japan, Australia and 22 other countries to visit the United States without having to obtain a visa. In 2002, Congress approved the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, which required those countries to issue tamper-resistant passports that incorporate biometric identifiers.
According to the U.S. Department of State, neither the United States nor any of the larger VWP countries, including England, France, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Spain or Japan, are in a position to meet the Oct. 26 deadline.
The legislation now goes to the White House, and, although President Bush sought a two-year delay, he is expected to sign the bill.
Maura Harty, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last month that a delay in the program implementation is necessary because of technological challenges encountered by the United States and the visa waiver countries. She cited issues, such as chip availability, the security of the data on the embedded chips and the international interoperability of readers.
Harty said the United States does not expect delivery of the 64 kilobyte "contactless" chips needed for the passports until next year, and the State Department does not anticipate completing the transition to biometric passports until the end of 2005.
While it called for a biometric passport system, the 9/11 Commission report, released last week, echoed the administration's concerns about the biometric passport deadline.
"Completion of the entry-exit system is a major and expensive challenge," the report states. "Biometrics have been introduced into an antiquated computer environment. Replacement of these systems and improved biometric systems will be required. Nonetheless, funding and completing a biometrics-based, entry-exit system is an essential investment in our national security."
The report further stressed that connecting biometric passports with reliable databases will be key to real-time identification verification.
"Linking biometric passports to good data systems and decision making is a fundamental goal. No one can hide his or her debt by acquiring a credit card with a slightly different name," the report says. "Yet today, a terrorist can defeat the link to electronic records by tossing away an old passport and slightly altering the name in the new one."
The report adds, "Exchanging terrorist information with other countries, consistent with privacy requirements, along with listings of lost and stolen passports, will have immediate security benefits. The further away from our borders that screening occurs, the more security benefits we gain."
The standards for biometric passports were approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization in May and include a full-face image on a chip, as well as minimum chip storage capacity, security standards and technical benchmarks.
In March, the United States, Australia and other countries will begin global interoperability tests. Taking place in airports, the testing will involve air crew and regular passengers presenting their biometric passports at ports of entry where the passports will be read electronically.