Visa Waiver Countries Not Sharing Terrorist Data, GAO Finds

More than a Third of 38 Countries Not Sharing, Watchdog Says

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More than a third of the 38 countries whose citizens are allowed to visit the U.S. without a visa under the often controversial visa waiver program are failing to share terrorism-related data with the Department of Homeland Security, reports a top federal government watchdog.

What is the Visa Waiver Program?

Created in 1986 by the Ronald Reagan administration, the State Department’s visa waiver program currently allows citizens of 38 approved countries to enter the United States for purposes of tourism or business for up to 90 days without a visa.

To be approved to participate in the visa waiver program, a country must be considered a “developed” country with a per-capita income, an active and stable economy, and a high ranking on United Nations’ Human Development Index, a measurement of a country’s overall development and quality of life.

During 2014, more than 22.3 million people from the 38 approved countries were allowed to enter the U.S. temporarily under the visa waiver program, according to State Department records. 

How the Program is Supposed to Block Terrorists

To help keep terrorists and others intent on doing wrong from traveling to the United States, the Department of Homeland Security requires visa waiver program countries to share identity and background information on all persons seeking entry ​into the United States.

Since 2015, all visa waiver program countries have been required to sign agreements vowing to share their information on lost or stolen passports, known or suspected terrorists, and criminal history with US officials.

In addition, federal law requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to constantly evaluate the impact of each country’s participation in the program on U.S. law enforcement and security in order to determine whether the countries should be allowed to remain in the program. The law also requires the DHS to submit its visa waiver program evaluations to Congress at least every two years.

But the GAO Found Holes in the Program’s Anti-Terrorist Net

While all 38 countries are sharing passport data, more than a third of them do not report criminal histories and more than a third do not share terrorist identity information, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO conducted its investigation at the request of members of Congress who have long criticized the visa waiver program as being a virtual paved road for European-based terrorists to enter the United States.

Prior to the law enacted in 2015, the visa waiver countries were not required to fully implement their information sharing agreements. Even after enactment of the law requiring full implantation of data sharing agreements, the Department of Homeland Security failed to establish time frames for the countries to comply and begins fully sharing the information.

“Time frames for working with [visa waiver program] countries to implement their agreements could help DHS enforce U.S. legal requirements and could strengthen DHS's ability to protect the United States and its citizens,” wrote the GAO.”

The GAO also found that the Department of Homeland Security’s was failing to send its visa waiver program evaluations to Congress on a timely basis.

As of October 31, 2015, the GAO found that a quarter of DHS’ most recent visa waiver program reports to Congress had been submitted, or remained undelivered, at least 5 months past the deadlines required by law.

“As a result,” wrote the GAO, “Congress may lack timely information needed to conduct oversight of the [visas waiver program] and assess whether further modifications are necessary to prevent terrorists from exploiting the program.”

In doing its report, the GAO interviewed U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., and U.S. and foreign officials in four visa waiver program countries selected based on factors including high estimated numbers of foreign terrorist fighters present in the countries.

“Because many [visa waiver program] countries have not yet provided information through the agreements -- possibly including information about known or suspected terrorists -- agencies’ access to this critical information may be limited,” concluded the report.

As a public version of a classified report issued in January 2016, the GAO report referenced in this article did not identify which countries were failing to fully comply with the data sharing requirements of the visa waiver program.

What the GAO Recommended

The GAO recommended that the Department of Homeland Security should:

  • Set specific timelines for its work with visa waiver program countries on complying with their terrorist information-sharing agreements; and
  • Improve the timeliness of its reporting to Congress on whether specific countries should be allowed to remain in the program.

The DHS agreed.