More than one-third of countries participating in a program allowing their citizens to enter the United States without visas are failing to live up to requirements for sharing information about suspected terrorists and criminals.
The finding, contained in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this week, heightened officials’ concerns about potential vulnerabilities in the Visa Waiver Program and its possible exploitation by terrorists.
"Thousands of Europeans have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, and most of them are from countries that have visa-free access to the United States,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulChina draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai House GOP seek to block Biden from reopening Palestinian mission in Jerusalem Trump endorses Texas rep who said he 'very well may have' committed impeachable offenses MORE (R-Texas) said in a statement on Tuesday. “These extremists are only a plane-flight away from our shores, which is why overseas counterterrorism cooperation is critical.
“But if our partners do not share data about terror suspects quickly and transparently, such fanatics might be able to slip through the cracks to enter our country.”
Around the world, 38 nations participate in the program, including friends and allies such as the United Kingdom, France and Japan. In order to participate, each nation is required to share information with the U.S. about lost or stolen passports, suspected terrorists and criminal history.
But of those three categories, only the requirement to share lost or stolen passport information was being implemented by all nations, the GAO report found.
Until last August, the U.S. did not require foreign countries to have implemented the agreements, only entered into them.
However, the Department of Homeland Security has still not set time frames for finalizing the agreements, the watchdog noted, “contrary to standard program management practices.”
Late last year, Congress passed a law requiring the countries to put the plans in place or risk losing status in the Visa Waiver Program. That law has yet to be fully implemented.
Homeland Security spokesman Neema Hakim said in a statement that the information sharing agreements “are designed to supplement existing channels that have successfully facilitated the exchange of information.”
The department agrees with the GAO’s recommendations, Hakim added, and has taken a number of steps to beef up the screening program.
The GAO acknowledged that U.S. officials often receive information about suspected terrorists or accused criminals through other means, but claimed that it had been told that “information sharing through the agreements is essential for national security.”
The GAO report on Monday also found that roughly one-quarter of the Homeland Security Department’s scheduled reports to Congress about whether countries should be allowed to remain in the program were late.
“As a result, Congress may lack timely information needed to conduct oversight of the [visa waiver program] and assess whether further modifications are necessary to prevent terrorists from exploiting the program,” it warned.
The GAO acts as Congress’s external investigative arm.
Scrutiny on the visa program has heightened in recent months, following deadly terror attacks in San Bernardino, Calif., Paris and Brussels by supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Many of the assailants were European nationals, so they potentially would have had easy access to travel to the U.S.
In response to the concerns, Capitol Hill tightened the program late last year, limiting access to people who are dual nationals of or who had traveled recently to Iraq, Sudan, Iran or Syria. In February, the Department of Homeland Security expanded the list to include Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
– Updated at 5:59 p.m.