WASHINGTON – Increasing numbers of Middle Easterners
are ducking a new anti-terrorist screening system by
coming to America on passports from “low-risk” nations
such as France, which participate in the federal Visa
Waiver Program, immigration officials warn.

The controversial program – still in effect after
Sept. 11, despite growing calls here for its
elimination – allows foreign travelers from 28
nations to enter the U.S. for business or tourism for
up to 90 days without obtaining the documentation law
enforcement needs to screen out foreign threats.

Adding to worries, passport fraud in some of these
countries – namely France and Belgium – is on the
rise, officials say.

“We are having huge problems with French and Belgian
passports of late, and to a smaller degree the Spanish
passports,” said a U.S. immigration inspector
supervisor at a major international airport.

Through the Visa Waiver Program, “people from the
Middle East are trying to enter the U.S. using these
passports,” he said. “Some are very sophisticated and
have been trained to answer inspectors’ questions.”

He notes that the Arab Muslim population in France is
exploding, and many of them already speak French,
making it hard for inspectors to root out imposters
and potential security threats.

“Of course, there are very few inspectors who can
speak fluent French, and since we have a very short
time to determine if that person is legitimate or not,
many of the undesirables are allowed to enter the U.S.
with fraudulent passports,” said the official, who
requested anonymity.

The alleged 20th al-Qaida hijacker, Zacarias
Moussaoui, a French citizen, entered the U.S. by way
of the Visa Waiver Program.

Middle Easterners also are using Spanish passports,
the official said, “because it is hard to distinguish,
sometimes, a Spanish person from a Middle Eastern
person, if that person has been coached to look and
act like a person from Spain.”

He says that, among the “low-risk” nations
participating in the program, Belgium has the least
secure passports. “They keep losing blank passports,”
an inspector complained. It too is seeing a large
increase in Arab immigrants.

The Homeland Security Department last week suspended
another federal program that allows visa-less travel
through U.S. airports after learning al-Qaida
hijackers planned to exploit the loophole in a Sept.
11-like plot sometime before the fall.

The obscure program, known as Transit Without Visa,
lets foreign travelers on long international journeys
stop over at U.S. airports without going through U.S.
screening. It has been
a favorite of immigrant smugglers
– and has
apparently caught the eye of would-be al-Qaida
hijackers looking to bypass U.S. airport security.

Under the temporary ban, even foreign passengers in
transit who use the same flight to depart that they
used to arrive must fill out I-94 immigration forms
and have their names run through the federal TECS
lookout system while their flight awaits refueling or
takes on new passengers, inspectors tell

“Anyone requiring a visa and not having one will be
considered a TWOV (Transit Without Visa) and cannot
use the transit lounge, and will be refused entry to
the U.S. and returned to the country from which
they’ve just arrived – unless their tickets were
purchased prior to July 24,” one inspector said. “We
have been refusing TWOV (passengers) right and left
this week.”

However, visa-less passengers can still enter the U.S.
from “low-risk” countries participating in the Visa
Waiver Program, which affects roughly 15 million more foreign travelers to the U.S. a year than TWOV. And as immigration reformers point
out, al-Qaida has a strong presence in many of the
so-called “low-risk” countries now.

“With the al-Qaida network spread among 70 nations –
across the Middle East, into Western Europe and
throughout southeast Asia – what is a ‘low-risk’ nation
in the post-Sept. 11 world?” said Michelle Malkin,
author of “Invasion.”

Using the waiver program, terrorists like shoe-bomber
Richard Reid, who didn’t need a visa to board a jet
from London to the U.S., avoid pre-screening.

“No checks of any kind are made on any individuals
boarding planes from those countries,” the supervisor

Homeland Security argues that since the Sept. 11
hijackings, inspectors have been advised to check
passports of Visa Waiver Program passengers against
terrorist watch-lists.

Airlines are now required to send a list of all Visa
Waiver passengers 24 hours in advance. When such
flights arrive, inspectors check off each name in the
computer to verify entry status. And while in flight,
so-called passenger-analysis teams randomly run the
names of passengers on the list through databases to
check for criminal history and prior overstays, among
other things.

But the supervisor says even the random checks aren’t
always done. And besides, such checks shouldn’t be
done at the last minute, but well in advance, through
the visa application process.

“A visa shows us that person had been seen and
interviewed by a consular officer and passed
scrutiny,” he said.

He also points out that visas are harder to forge than

“The new visas have many security features that
terrorists cannot duplicate, and all visas are now in
our computer database and any inspector working the
line can bring up the visa on the computer to compare
it with the visas they are looking at,” he said. “If a
a photo substitution has taken place or any bio
information has been changed, it would be immediately
noticeable to the inspector. Requiring visas would
severely hinder terrorists’ ability to enter the U.S.”

Passports, on the other hand, are easier to forge.
Ahmad Ajaj, a co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade
Center bombing, tried to enter the U.S. through the
Visa Waiver Program after pasting his photo onto a
Swedish passport. He was caught.

But, “these groups have come a long way in making a
fraudulent passport look exactly like a valid
passport,” the official said. “There are times when it
is totally impossible to detect under the naked eye.
Only a thorough check with equipment spots it.”

And terrorists are trained to identify new inspectors
on the line, who will be more likely to miss
counterfeit passports, he says.

Homeland Security argues it has taken
counter-measures. For instance, it recently banned all
Belgian passports that are not machine-readable. Now
any Belgian passengers entering the U.S. with the old
passports, which are easier to fake, will be refused
entry and returned home.

Still, inspectors insist that the threat won’t really
pass until the government bans the Visa Waiver

But unless al-Qaida hijackers exploit the loophole, it
won’t likely be closed anytime soon. The program
generates big revenue for the airlines, which have a
powerful lobby here.

As one inspector put it: “Airlines would scream if the
VWP (Visa Waiver Program) were stopped. There are
flights today where out of 300 passengers on a 747,
maybe six to 10 will have a visa, and everyone else
will be VWP.”

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