March 20, 2011 | Commentary on Homeland Security, Terrorism

Homeland Security Know Nothings Blocking Visa-Free Travel

What's the best weapon for protecting America from terrorist attack? Common sense. Just ask Peter King.

The New York Republican is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. He thought the committee should look into radicalization among American Muslims. It seemed logical. After all, most of the 38 known terrorist plots aimed at America since 9/11 were homegrown.

The theme of the hearing was nothing new. Last year, a committee in the Democrat-controlled Senate held one of its own. King's objective was the same, to alert communities to the danger of exploitation and explore the best ways to combat radicalization.

The witness list was impressive -- a slew of responsible experts representing various disciplines and viewpoints. Among them: Los Angeles Sheriff Lee Baca, who has developed one of country's most progressive and effective outreach programs to local Muslim leaders.

From concept to participants, the hearing seemed little more than an exercise in common sense. Yet days before the session even convened, King found himself showered with vitriol, compared to Joe McCarthy and pestered with death threats.

That irresponsible, fear-mongering response to a prudent exercise in governance says much about what is wrong with homeland security today. All too often, political agendas trump practical measures.

The same Know-Nothing instinct that vilified King led Congress to kill a prudent and valuable program that encouraged other countries to join the Visa Waiver Program.

VWP allows visa-free travel -- for leisure or business -- for up to 90 days among member states. It encourages commerce, tourism, and professional and cultural interchange between allies. Best of all, it improves security.

Countries participating in the VWP must meet higher-than-normal standards in combating terrorism, law enforcement, border control, document security, and reporting information on lost and stolen passports.

More importantly, they agree to share much more security-related information about travelers than what we get from the standard visa process. This information sharing helps identify and track suspected terrorists and their supporters, international criminals, and visitors who overstay their allotted time in country.

After 9/11, as part of its mission to strengthen our national security, the Department of Homeland Security restructured the program to 1) beef up the security requirements and 2) bring more countries into the program.

Nine new countries were brought into the improved VWP program. Now, however, current law prevents adding new countries with a visa refusal rate greater than 3 percent until Homeland Security develops and implements a system to biometrically track the departure of foreign visitors, a program that will likely never happen and has nothing to do with VWP.

That's a problem because important allies are among the nations left out when Congress closed the door. Poland, whose soldiers have fought side-by-side with Americans in Afghanistan, is among those left outside, looking in.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., along with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., are trying to right this wrong. They recently introduced the "Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Act of 2011," a bill that would restore momentum to VWP and give nations like Poland (and Chile and Panama) an opportunity to participate.

The bill's sponsors seem to have the support of the White House. President Obama has acknowledged that "we should work to include countries like Poland. ... Today's visa regime reflects neither the current strategic relationship nor the close historic bonds between our peoples, and is out of date."

Congress has an opportunity undo its poor decision to freeze the Visa Waiver Program. Here's hoping the Know Nothings don't carry the day this time around.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Related Issues: Homeland Security, Terrorism

First appeared in The Examiner