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WASHINGTON – In rolling out the new US-VISIT program
to fingerprint and screen foreign travelers, Homeland
Security Secretary Tom Ridge boasted that it ”pulls
the welcome mat from terrorists.”

But not all the way or all the time, as it turns out.

A high-level memorandum from his department orders
customs agents to stop fingerprinting as many
travelers as needed to reduce ”delays and wait times”
caused by the the new program, which went into effect
Monday at all 115 American airports that handle
international flights.

The fine print of the the new antiterror plan reveals
a “wait time mitigation strategy” that requires agents
to “cease the collection of biometrics” – digital
fingerprints and photographs – on foreign passengers
if processing ”wait times exceed one hour” – even
under terror threat level conditions of Orange or Red.

”In order to comply with the US-VISIT goal to expedite

legitimate travel and trade, it is imperative that delays and wait times

be kept to a minimum,” said the Jan. 2 memo, a copy of which was

obtained by WorldNetDaily.

The 6-page document – marked ”Law Enforcement
Sensitive” and titled “US-VISIT Implementation Plan
for Jan. 5, 2004 (TC#BSF-0476)” – was issued by Jayson
P. Ahern, the assistant commissioner of field
operations for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security.

Agents fear deadline pressures defeat the purpose of
the program, which is to enhance national security.

”What does this mean for the integrity of the system
if we can start letting people go?” asked a CBP
supervisor at one of the nation’s busiest
international airports.

A DHS spokesman acknowledged the one-hour deadline,
but noted that agents won’t have any trouble meeting
it thanks to advance passenger data from airlines.

”The rule is to expedite the process, the time in
which the people go through the system,” said DHS
press secretary Brian Roehrkasse.

”But we’re getting the data on passengers a lot
sooner, so we have information about these people a
long time before they land,” he told WorldNetDaily.
”Hence, it’s easier to get them through” customs.

The supervisor, who asked to go unnamed, disagreed.

”That doesn’t mean squat, because we still have to
process them when they come through,” he said, adding
that it takes about two minutes to enroll each passenger
in US-VISIT.

Ridge says the new program should add just 15 seconds
to the entry process once agents become proficient at fingerprinting

and photographing passengers.

Agents are also upset that Washington will be
monitoring wait times and delays at the various ports.
Each field office is required to submit wait-time
statistics electronically, according to the memo.

Under pressure to keep delays down, they say managers
might cut corners.

”The system is going to be discretionary,” an agent at
a major West Coast airport said. ”It won’t apply to
all flights and all passengers with a U.S. visa.”

”Management will pick and choose which flights will be
checked according to the length of time in the
processing line and number of passengers on the
flight,” he added. ”If flights come close to the one
hour processing limit, US-VISIT will be temporarily
suspended.”

Still, the DHS memo discourages any wholesale
bypassing of the US-VISIT program to thin inspections
lines. It calls for exempting passengers in increments
based on age, visa type and other threat criteria.

”When wait times exceed one hour for that particular
port and utilization of all proactive management
practices have determined that mitigation is
necessary, mitigation will be implemented in
incremental steps,” the memo states on page 4.

Agents say they are stunned that Washington is setting
the deadline during the high threat alert.

”You would think that the new one-hour processing rule
would be discontinued under level Orange, but it
isn’t,” one agent said.

According to the memo, partial US-VISIT processing
under level Orange or Red must be authorized at a high
level. The memo gives that authority to Robert
Jacksta, executive director of border security and
facilitation for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Washington initially set the processing deadline for
US-VISIT at two hours, according to a Dec. 9 document.
Then as pilot programs at select airports experienced
delays over the holidays, and the travel industry
complained, the deadline was tightened to one hour, a
CBP official says.

”Somehow the airline industry has convinced the
Department of Homeland Security that flights can be
processed in one hour or less with no damage to
national security,” he said.

US-VISIT, which stands for United States Visitor and
Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, automatically
exempts 27 mostly industrialized nations that
participate in the reciprocal Visa Waiver Program.

It’s another big loophole, though less hidden, critics
say. At least two al-Qaida suspects, Richard Reid and
Zacarias Moussaoui, have managed to board flights to
the U.S. from visa-exempt countries.

Related story:

Immigration inspectors under the gun at airports

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