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Hearing of the House Judiciary Committee - Deadline For Biometric Passport

Location: Washington, DC







REP. SENSENBRENNER: The committee will be in order. Mr. Conyers and I will give opening statements. Secretary Powell is caught in traffic somewhere between the White House and here, but with Secretary Ridge's permission, we decided to get going.


REP. BOB GOODLATTE (R-VA): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Secretary Powell, Secretary Ridge, welcome. We are honored to have you here. The presence of both of you I think sends a strong message to the Congress how important this issue is and how important it is that we address it rapidly but also thoroughly.

Secretary Powell, I would guess that a great many Americans don't understand the role that you and your department play in homeland security; that in effect, the hundreds and hundreds of U.S. consular offices around the world and the millions of visa applications that citizens of other countries submit is really our frontline of defense in the security of our country, since we know that most of these terrorist threats are from people who would come from elsewhere to cause us harm.

So we thank you very much for the understanding and the recognition.

I want to second what the gentleman from Massachusetts said. This is a very important task. But it's also a serious problem that we design a system that works efficiently and rapidly. I've had a number of my constituents, doing important work for U.S. companies doing business around the world, who have left to go to other places to conduct that work and are unable to get back to continue their responsibilities here as a result. So anything you can do in that area, we very much appreciate.

Secretary Ridge, I am also a member of the Select Committee on Homeland Security and in that capacity have had the opportunity to visit some of our ports of entry and see the US-VISIT program operating. It is an impressive program, and most of the time it will work very efficiently and very quickly to identify people. Particularly where they have been to a consulate, and State Department officials have had the opportunity to scrutinize this individual and pass muster, the match-up is a very effective thing.

But that leads us to the obvious question: How much other data are you receiving that goes into that program, that will be useful for the countries that are under the Visa Waiver Program and are not going through that kind of clearance process in the consular offices?

SEC. RIDGE: Well, one of the requests we have and we're working with our friends in the European Union is to get additional information with regard to foreign travelers through the passenger name records. You know, we get certain basic information from men and women who are going to be flying into the country or taking a trip across the Atlantic. So we're looking to get additional biographical information from the European Union. Those negotiations are ongoing. I feel confident, though they have been somewhat controversial, at the end of the day we-able to secure additional information, because, again, particularly since 9/11 and the regrettable number of terrorist-related incidents around the world, more and more countries are becoming even more sensitive to the notion that they have an interest in protecting their borders in a fashion-perhaps not precisely like the United States, but getting information about people coming to and from their countries as well is in their best interest.

So I think Secretary Powell and I are really committed to trying to develop a single standard for air travel, a single standard for document identification, a single standard for personal identification. And you have a lot of people out there who want to make-work with us to make it happen.

REP. GOODLATTE: Secretary Powell, is there a quid pro quo here? Can we, at the same time we tell these countries that we're giving this extension of time, suggest that they need to accelerate the cooperation in providing us with other passenger and other criminal information and so on that --

SEC. POWELL: Certainly. There have been quite a few discussions, as Secretary Ridge said, about the passenger information.

I think we can use this extension to put pressure on them with respect to any remaining difficulties there are to this kind of effort.

REP. GOODLATTE: Let me ask you one more question. The USA Patriot Act provided that, by October 2003, aliens arriving under the Visa Waiver Program had to have machine-readable passports. The act allows you to waive this requirement until October 2007, and you've waived that requirement only until October 2004.

Do you expect that all Visa Waiver countries will be issuing machine-readable passports by this October? And if not, do you plan any further waivers for individual countries? Does the State Department regulation provide exceptions for non-machine-readable passports on any basis, and in so how long will those passports be acceptable for admission? The reason of my asking you is that non- machine-readable passports valid for 10 years could be valid for quite a long period of time beyond which we get our other program operating.


(To Secretary Ridge.) You want to take this one?

SEC. RIDGE: Well, I would just say to you that the-it was asked earlier with regard to using US-VISIT if-even if the extension is applied, and I think US-VISIT, even if you have a machine-readable passport or a non-machine-readable passport, adds that layer of security until we get everybody up to the situation where they have an international-compliant, biometrically enabled, machine-readable passport. So I think, if it's our call within the Department of Homeland Security, we will use US-VISIT in perpetuity as these countries ratchet up to get to the requirements that Congress has appropriately said we need to apply.

REP. SENSENBRENNER: The gentleman's time has expired.

Gentleman from Virginia, Mr. Scott.

REP. GOODLATTE: Mr. Chairman, I believe Secretary Powell wanted to answer that.

SEC. POWELL: The only thing I was going to add is that US-VISIT will continue even after we get into the new system. Even after we get into machine-readable and biometric passports, Secretary Ridge intends to continue with US-VISIT so we get that other layer of security.

SEC. RIDGE: Yeah, particularly because it's the finger scans. I mean, the facial recognition is very good to confirm that the person that got the visa is the person that shows up at the port of entry. It doesn't give us a means of going in to take a look at a fairly exhaustive database dealing with criminals and people that we've deported, and in time I suspect even fingerprints of terrorists or terrorist suspects. So again, I think we ought to just plan on having that as part of our entry system, admission system in perpetuity until circumstances warrant a change.


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