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Bush Administration, Democrats Spar on Customs Security - 2004-06-09

Democratic senators have strongly criticized the Bush administration for leaving in place customs regulations which, they say, allow terrorists easy entry to the U.S. The nation's homeland security chief says the administration is working hard to enforce customs regulations to keep terrorists away.

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge faced tough questioning from Democrats who criticized what they said were glaring defects in the nation's Visa Waiver Program.

The program allows citizens of 27 nations to enter the United States without a visa for a period of up to 90 days. Thirteen million citizens from Visa Waiver Program countries visited the United States last year.

But Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, told Secretary Ridge the program is problematic because it potentially allows Islamic extremists who hold Western European passports to enter the United States.

"You have got a program that is very sloppy and is in great disarray," she said. "We know that this program has been used by terrorists. Specifically, Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, used a British passport. [Zacarias] Moussaoui used a French passport under the visa waiver program."

Senator Feinstein suggested the program is so flawed that it may have to be suspended, forcing citizens of the 27 participating countries to apply for visas when they travel to the United States.

She asked Mr. Ridge about a government report, published last month, that says that when U.S. customs officers intercept individuals holding stolen passports, they are legally obliged to return the passports to them so the individuals may return to their country of origin.

Ridge: We have turned away people at the borders who appeared with a stolen European passport. I mean, we do get that information.

Feinstein: Why don't you confiscate the passport? Why are you giving them back the fraudulent passport?

Ridge: Senator, on that specific matter, I'm going to be discussing that and some other things with my I.G. [Inspector General] this afternoon.

Mr. Ridge added that the U.S. government notifies countries when U.S. customs intercepts individuals holding stolen passports.

During the hearing, Secretary Ridge also said that by law, his department reviews the policies of visa waiver program countries every two years to make sure these comply with U.S. entry requirements. He said the review helps the government determine whether a country will remain on the visa waiver list.

One of these requirements is the use of passports that include fingerprints or other forms of identification.

"To strengthen the security of this program, participating countries are now required to issue machine-readable passports that incorporate biometric identifiers," said Tom Ridge.

In response to news reports about a possible terrorist strike against the United States this summer, Mr. Ridge said he did not feel compelled to raise the nation's current terror alert level.