In a recent speech at The Heritage Foundation, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff made the case for continuing the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). On the surface, his speech addressed only why the United States should keep and expand the program. But it did far more. Subtly yet forcefully, it made the case for robust surveillance programs that work hand in glove with the VWP.
For those not familiar with the VWP, it is a program where participating countries (38 to date) agree to share basic data and security information with the United States about travelers from their countries and offers privileges to U.S. citizens travelling to their countries. Participating countries also must have a visa refusal rate below 3 percent.
According to a Heritage paper by a colleague, prior to travel, “VWP tourists are prescreened using the databases of all VWP member through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which determines whether or not they are eligible to travel to the U.S.” The national security benefit to us is obvious, and VWP has also allowed for greater economic flow between the United States and VWP member states.
The benefits of having the VWP program are that we get information about would-be travelers in advance of their travel. That creates “an opportunity for our government to look at the details of someone’s birthdate, address, things of that sort and determine---based on what our intelligence is---that this person poses perhaps a risk that requires a closer look.”
On top of basic data provided by the VWP, we have “the added capabilities through our ability to review and analyze passenger name record information, which is basic travel data, about peoples’ address, contact information, and travel route, by combining this with ESTA we are able to take a deeper look at the kinds of connections or contacts that might suggest someone is a risk that we can then pull into secondary (screening) when they arrive in the United States.”
Chertoff said “these programs have proven very powerful over the years in allowing us to avoid the problem of people coming in as operatives from overseas because we have an early warning.”
To drive home the point, Chertoff noted that they retrospectively ran the then-existing data of the 9/11 hijackers through the VWP/ESTA programs, and, following leads that flowed from that, found that they could have identified suspicious patterns and given reason to take a closer look at 15 out the 19 September 11 hijackers later identified as Al Qaeda operatives.
At a time when the United States faces the threat of ISIS, the proliferation of other rogue regimes and mounting concerns about lone wolf terrorists, the maintenance of VWP and similar protective programs can improve national security. Chertoff concluded that “now is not the time to handicap or dismantle our intelligence collection programs…that have literally been at the cornerstone of protecting the United States since 2001.” Chertoff concluded that the VWP is “a plus-plus for our national security and our economic security.”
Cully Stimson is a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and Manager of its National Security Law program.