03 February 2004
DOS: Few Countries Can Meet Machine Readable Passport Deadline
State's Harty says resulting visa application surge also would
By Anthony Kujawa
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- Few of the twenty-seven nations participating in
the U.S. visa waiver program have indicated they would be able
to meet an October 26, 2004, deadline requiring that they issue
machine readable passports that incorporate biometric identifiers,
says a State Department official.
Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Maura Harty, testifying
before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United
States, also known as the 9-11 Commission, responded to a series
of questions on the visa-issuance process, the visa waiver program
and outlined steps taken to identify and eliminate vulnerabilities
in the U.S. visa system.
Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) citizens of certain countries
are able to enter the United States for tourism or business for
90 days or less without obtaining a visa. Harty said these travelers
account for 57 percent of overseas tourist spending in the United
States, or $39.6 billion in 2000.
The USA Patriot Act requires that VWP travelers present a machine-readable
passport at U.S. ports of entry effective October 1, 2003, in order
to be admitted to the country without a visa, but Secretary of
State Colin Powell, in consultation with the U.S. Department of
Homeland Security, extended this requirement until October 26,
2004 for twenty-one of the WVP countries.
According to a Department of Homeland Security fact sheet, by
October 26, 2004, countries participating in the VWP are mandated
by the USA Patriot Act to certify that they have programs to issue
their nationals machine readable passports that incorporate biometric
identifiers that comply with standards established by the International
Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Any passport issued after October
26, 2004, must be an ICAO-compliant travel document that uses biometrics,
if the bearer applies for admission into the United States under
the VWP, said the fact sheet.
The U.S. statute gave the decision on which biometric would be
required to ICAO, which decided in May 2003 on facial recognition
as the globally interoperable biometric for machine-assisted identity
confirmation, leaving little time for countries to develop a capacity
to issue the new machine readable passports, said Harty.
Biometrics, according to an ICAO press release, is a means of
identifying a person by biological features unique to an individual,
using advanced computerized recognition techniques. Facial recognition
technology automates the process of using a tradition "photo
ID," using a camera to capture the image of the face, while
a computer validates facial characteristics. ICAO is still finalizing
some of the technical standards for facial recognition.
In response to a question on the chances VWP countries would meet
the October 26, 2004, deadline, Harty said, "Very few will
make it. Very few at this point have indicated to us that they
will have an ability to do that."
"There are robust efforts in place to put such programs in
place, but most will not be ready by October 26, 2004," she
According to State Department estimates, an additional 5.3 million
visa interviews would need to be conducted if the October 26 statutory
deadline were to remain in place and countries were unable on an
individual basis to continue to participate or to comply with the
program as it exists, Harty told the commission in response to
"That would be a daunting, daunting challenge for us," said
"Given our current resources, we would not be able to in
fact fulfill those obligations the way we would want to," added
"It would be a difficult management challenge for us ...
to hire and train and perhaps even build brick and mortar facilities
to interview people to bridge the gap between the October 26, 2004,
deadline and the time when the countries would be able to come
online," she added.
Asked about the assistant secretary's testimony alluding to a
need to possibly extend the deadline, State Department Consular
Affairs spokesman Stuart Patt clarified that the State Department
does not have the authority to extend the deadline. "Only
the Congress can do that by legislation," he said.
"While Secretary of State Colin Powell had the authority
to extend the machine readable requirement [of October 1, 2003],
he does not have the authority to extend beyond October 26 
the biometric or machine readable requirements," said Patt.
Asked if the State Department would request congressional action,
Patt said the Department has not yet made any formal request of
Congress. "The assistant secretary was using that opportunity
to alert the Congress as to what is the situation," he said.
"As long as the country has a program in place working towards
a biometric passport, then their citizens who already have machine
readable passports will continue to be able to enter the United
States visa waiver with those machine readable passports, if those
passports are issued before October 26," added Patt.
"But any passport issued on or after October 26, in order
for it to be used as a visa waiver travel document must have a
biometric identifier," he said. "If it does not, the
individual will have to get a visa."
The 27 countries currently in the VWP are: Andorra, Australia,
Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland,
Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands,
New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia,
Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
More information about the VWP is available at: http://travel.state.gov/vwp