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US to Make Foreign Visitors Register Online

EU Questions Program, Which Applies to Travelers Who Don't Need Visas

Spencer S. Hsu and Sholnn Freeman

Residents of 27 friendly nations who can travel to the United States without a visa will be required to register online with the U.S. government at least 72 hours before departure starting in January, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization continues a trend after Sept. 11, 2001, of tightened security for residents of countries in the Visa Waiver Program, which includes 22 European nations, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei. European officials have chafed at stepped-up U.S. demands even as the United States holds talks with former Eastern Bloc countries and others seeking to join the club.

"Rather than relying on paper-based procedures, this system will leverage 21st-century electronic means to obtain basic information about who is traveling to the U.S. without a visa," Chertoff said. Officials said the program is similar to one in Australia.

U.S. officials say the change will shrink a security loophole. U.S. customs and border authorities already receive electronic passenger manifest information from airlines 15 minutes after departure on U.S.-bound flights. But screeners can use the added time and information to conduct more thorough checks and keep unwanted persons from boarding planes and ships.

Jacques Barrot, a European Union vice president, asked for more details about U.S. plans, E.U. officials said. The commission is determining whether the requirement is tantamount to a visa and whether to study imposing a similar requirement on Americans traveling to Europe.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said the effort "contributes to an atmosphere of general distrust" fostered by American security measures. "Transatlantic cooperation between the intelligence services is the only way forward, not the massive collection of data in general," she said.

The new rule requires travelers to submit information electronically that they now fill out on I-94W paper forms en route to the United States. Travelers who can not access a U.S. government Web site may register through travel agents or airline Web sites.

Authorization will be valid for multiple entries over two years. Travelers can begin voluntarily registering Aug. 1. People who are rejected may visit a U.S. consulate to apply for a visa.

Mike McConnell, U.S. director of national intelligence, testified last year that al-Qaeda was recruiting Europeans because they do not require a visa to enter the United States, comments echoed by CIA and FBI leaders.

In the wake of a disrupted London plot in August 2006 to down transatlantic jetliners with liquid explosives, Chertoff told the BBC, "The first time we encounter visa-waiver travelers is when they arrive in the United States, and that creates a very small window of opportunity to check them out."

Experts warned that if the system overwhelms consular offices with visa applications or forces a large percentage of travelers with Arabic names to apply for visas, it could create a public relations disaster.

The National Business Travel Association asked what options Homeland Security would provide for last-minute or uninformed travelers. U.S. and international airlines criticized the department for circumventing normal public notice and comment and questioned the added security of duplicating information they said is already obtained from airlines.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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