US visa waiver program is loophole for extremists, ‘much work’ needed – DHS chief

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Amid the heightened terror alert in the EU, authorities in Washington are concerned that extremists who have received training in Iraq or Syria and since returned back to Europe might also try to slip into the US undetected through a visa waiver program.

"To deal with the foreign fighter potential, the foreign fighter threat presented now globally, we need to develop more robust information sharing with our key counterterrorism allies overseas to share information about individuals of suspicion," Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Friday.

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Johnson’s comments reflect Washington's growing fear that jihadi trained EU nationals coming from Syria and Iraq might use a US visa waiver loophole to enter American soil to carry out attacks.

The American Visa Waiver Program (VWP) by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) enables nationals of designated countries to travel to the US for tourism or business for up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. After the recent terror attacks in France, the program – which allows travelers from 38 countries to visit the US without a visa – is under scrutiny.

Johnson also noted that as the EU remains on high alert, the US is concerned with its allies' citizens and legal residents who have left to fight with terror groups in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. To help secure US borders, Johnson announced that in November “information fields to the electronic system for travel authorization” were added.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (Mark Wilson/Getty Images/AFP)

The US has also taken steps to tighten security assurances with those countries that are eligible for the VWP. In addition, 15 Customs and Border Protection clearance centers are working at overseas airports to screen travelers bound for the US. Johnson called the work of these field offices “successful,” adding that several people on the US terror list were prevented from boarding a US-bound plane last year in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Johnson said the centers have prevented a total of 450 people from boarding planes.

In September, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania) introduced a bill that would suspend the VWP for those countries whose nationals have joined or been trained by the Islamic State.

However, US authorities and the aviation industry do not want to discard the program, as it “represents an important element of lawful commerce” between the US and its international partners, Johnson said.

Heavyweights of US foreign policy have also voiced concern over the security threat the VWP poses to the US.

“The visa waiver program is the Achilles heel of America,” US Senator Dianne Feinstein told CBS this week. “There are stolen travel documents, and they can pick up a false passport, so we have a big problem there.”

“They can come back from training, go through a visa waiver country, and come into this country. There are no-fly lists and there are terrorist lists, but [terrorists] are in the tens of thousands and even in the millions. So it’s difficult to ferret someone out," she said.