White House tightens visa waiver program, appoints new ‘ISIL adviser’

© Brendan McDermid
The Obama administration has announced stricter regulations for 20 million travelers from countries in its visa waiver program, and also appointed a new adviser to deal with Islamic State militants to bolster security following the terror attacks in Paris.

Citizens of the 38 nations participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) will now be screened for past travel to countries the US considers terrorist safe havens, the White House has said.

The US government will also move up the deadline for all VWP travelers to begin using passports with embedded security chips and seek to establish customs checkpoints in seven VWP countries, where passengers and their baggage could be inspected before entering the US.

The most recent State Department report on countries considered to be terrorist havens by the US, dated 2014, lists Somalia, Mali, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Columbia, and Venezuela. Syria is notably absent from the list.

Under the new White House initiative, the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will regularly identify and review terrorist safe havens, keeping the information up to date for the purpose of traveler risk assessments.

Though most of the countries participating in the visa waiver program are in Europe, it also applies to Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China). The program allows citizens of participant countries to enter the US without a visa for stays of 90 days or less.

“The visa-waiver program is a valuable tool to promote lawful trade and travel with our best foreign allies,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told reporters on Monday. “But, as many have noted, ISIL’s force consists of foreign terrorist fighters, including thousands from countries in the visa waiver program.”

The measures come in the wake of terrorist acts in Paris, France. The Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attacks that left at least 130 dead and over 350 injured, and has promised to strike the US as well.

In addition to the new visa regulations, White House spokesman Josh Earnest announced the appointment of a new presidential adviser to deal with the fight against the Islamic State. That position will be entrusted to Rob Malley, Earnest told reporters on Monday. Malley was previously involved in the successful negotiations with Iran concerning Tehran’s nuclear program.

Tightening the VWP was one of the measures proposed by Democratic lawmakers in response to recent terror attacks. However, the House of Representatives has adopted a Republican-proposed bill instead, demanding additional security screening of Syrian refugees who plan to settle in the US.

Some of the measures announced on Monday will require Congress to act, such as a proposal to raise the fines for airlines that fail to verify travelers’ passport data under the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) from $5,000 to $50,000.

Meanwhile, the US Customs and Border Protection (CPB) division of DHS is negotiating with airports in Belgium, Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom – all countries participating in the visa waiver program – to add Preclearance facilities, where CBP officers would screen travelers and their luggage before they even embark on airplanes bound for the US.