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Most will miss biometric passport deadline

Multiple technologies could add up to trouble for U.S.

From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau

Multiple technologies could add up to trouble for U.S.

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Asa Hutchinson

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- England, France, Germany, Japan and most other so-called "visa-waiver" countries have told the United States they will not be able to meet a deadline for issuing travelers biometric passports, a State Department official told Congress Wednesday.

Congress mandated that the 27 countries issue travelers to the United States machine-readable passports with a biometric identifier -- such as a fingerprint or facial recognition technology -- to help prevent terrorists from entering the United States.

When the Patriot Act became law in 2001 -- one month after the September 11 attacks -- it set a deadline of October 26, 2004 for the biometric passports.

Under the law, some visitors would be subjected to the same fingerprinting and photographing recently required of travelers from non-waiver countries.

But while the 27 countries are making "varying degrees of progress" in developing biometric passports, only one or two will meet the deadline, Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty told Congress. Japan and the United Kingdom will not begin issuing biometric passports until late 2005 and others may not come on-line until a year later, she said.

Harty made her comments to members of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. A State Department official called her comments "a big heads up that this is a big management concern."

Excluding visitors from Mexico and Canada, the 27 visa-waiver countries account for 68 percent of the people coming into the United States.

"This is a huge number of people," Harty testified. "We do not want to deter that travel."

The failure of so many countries to meet the looming deadline raises several prospects, federal officials said.

Other possible problems

Congress could extend the deadline. Extending the deadline would avert potential gridlock at U.S. ports of entry, or overloading the State Department with visa applications. But it would also relieve pressure on countries to comply with the mandate.

The United States could keep the deadline, and require visitors who formerly needed only passports to also apply for visas.

But Harty told Congress Wednesday that was not an acceptable solution because it would double the applications for visas and require her to hire hundreds of people and perhaps even construct additional consular space around the world. "As a manager, I can't in all honesty justify hiring so many people" to solve a temporary problem, she said.

Keeping the deadline also raises the prospect that visitors from visa-waiver countries -- like those from other countries -- would be fingerprinted and photographed upon entering the United States, a government official acknowledged. The fingerprinting of visitors has been met with some scorn from governments overseas, and has resulted in U.S. visitors being fingerprinted in Brazil.

The October deadline also presents problems for the U.S. government.

Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson told reporters Wednesday that if countries come up with different biometric technologies, the United States would have to install different passport readers at ports of entry. That would be a "huge expense," he said.

An extension of the deadline "could be well justified," Hutchinson said.

Harty told Congress that the International Civil Aviation Organization, charged with developing biometric standards, did not issue standards until May of last year, "leaving visa-waiver countries approximately 17 months to bring a biometric passport from design to production."

Normally, it would take several years to develop such a passport, she said.


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