Border Security:

Stronger Actions Needed to Assess and Mitigate Risks of the Visa Waiver Program

GAO-06-854: Published: Jul 28, 2006. Publicly Released: Sep 5, 2006.

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The Visa Waiver Program enables citizens of 27 countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for 90 days or less without obtaining a visa. In fiscal year 2004, more than 15 million people entered the country under the program. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the risks that aliens would exploit the program to enter the United States became more of a concern. In this report, we (1) describe the Visa Waiver Program's benefits and risks, (2) examine the U.S. government's process for assessing potential risks, and (3) assess actions taken to mitigate these risks. We met with U.S. embassy officials in six program countries, and reviewed relevant laws, procedures, and reports on participating countries.

The Visa Waiver Program has many benefits as well as some inherent risks. It facilitates travel for millions of people and eases consular workload, but poses challenges to border inspectors, who, when screening visa waiver travelers, may face language barriers or lack time to conduct in-depth interviews. Furthermore, stolen passports from visa waiver countries are prized travel documents among terrorists, criminals, and immigration law violators, creating an additional risk. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has intercepted many fraudulent documents at U.S. ports of entry, DHS officials acknowledged that an undetermined number of inadmissible aliens may have entered the United States using a stolen or lost passport from a visa waiver country. The U.S. government's process for assessing the risks of the Visa Waiver Program has weaknesses. In 2002, Congress mandated that, every 2 years, DHS review the effect that each country's continued participation in the program has on U.S. law enforcement and security interests, but did not set a reporting deadline. In 2004, DHS established a unit to oversee the program and conduct these reviews. We identified several problems with the 2004 review process, as key stakeholders were not consulted during portions of the process, preparation for the in-country site visits was not consistent, and the final reports were untimely. Furthermore, DHS cannot effectively achieve its mission to monitor and report on ongoing law enforcement and security concerns in visa waiver countries due to insufficient resources. DHS has taken some actions to mitigate the program's risks; however, the U.S. government has faced difficulties in further mitigating these risks. In particular, the department has not established time frames and operating procedures regarding timely stolen passport reporting--a program requirement since 2002. Furthermore, DHS has sought to require the reporting of lost and stolen passport data to the United States and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), but it has not issued clear reporting guidelines to participating countries. While most visa waiver countries participate with Interpol's database, four do not. DHS is not using Interpol's data to its full potential as a border screening tool because DHS does not automatically access the data at primary inspection.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: The May 2002 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act mandated DHS to conduct country assessments of the effect on U.S. law enforcement and security interests of each country's continued participation in the Visa Waiver Program at least every 2 years. Given the lengthy time it took for DHS to issue the November 2005 summary report to Congress, and to ensure future reports contain timely information when issued, Congress may wish to consider establishing a biennial deadline by which DHS must complete the country assessments and report to Congress.

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No action taken on the recommendation

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the U.S. government's process for assessing risks in the Visa Waiver Program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with State and other appropriate agencies, should provide additional resources to strengthen the Office of International Enforcement's visa waiver monitoring unit.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2006, GAO recommended (Border Security: Stronger Actions Needed to Assess and Mitigate Risks of the Visa Waiver Program, GAO-06-854, July 28, 2006) that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provide additional resources to strengthen the department's visa waiver monitoring unit. In June 2006, the visa waiver monitoring unit was staffed with two full-time employees and one temporary employee. We found that the office was limited in its ability to achieve its mission and conduct its numerous responsibilities because of insufficient staffing and funding. Since the publication of our 2006 report, DHS has provided the Visa Waiver Program Office with additional resources. As of April 2008, the office has five additional full-time employees, and two other staff from the Office of Policy devote at least 50 percent of their time to Visa Waiver Program tasks. Using these additional resources, DHS has taken actions to improve the ability of the Visa Waiver Program Office's to achieve its mission and perform its responsibilities.

    Recommendation: To improve the U.S. government's process for assessing risks in the Visa Waiver Program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with State and other appropriate agencies, should finalize clear, consistent, and transparent protocols for the biennial country assessments and provide these protocols to stakeholders at relevant agencies at headquarters and overseas. These protocols should provide timelines for the entire assessment process, including the role of a site visit, an explanation of the clearance process, and deadlines for completion.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2006, GAO recommended (Border Security: Stronger Actions Needed to Assess and Mitigate Risks of the Visa Waiver Program, GAO-06-854, July 28, 2006) that DHS finalize clear, consistent, and transparent protocols for the biennial country assessments and provide these protocols to stakeholders at relevant agencies at headquarters and overseas. GAO found that DHS did not establish transparent protocols for the country assessments including internal milestones or deadlines for completing the final country assessments, the goals of the site visits, and an explanation of the clearance process. In November 2007, a DHS official provided us with the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for the Visa Waiver Program Office (VWPO). These SOPs were drafted in November 2007 and are to be used as guidance when conducting reviews of nominated and participating Visa Waiver countries. A DHS official noted that these SOPs are internal documents and that it would be inappropriate to widely share the hard copy SOP documents. However, this official noted that well in advance of an assessment DHS/VWPO staff communicates and coordinates extensively with various stakeholders (including other DHS components, Department of State, Consular Affairs, American embassies overseas, DHS officials overseas, and the foreign embassies in Washington) to explain the assessment process and solicit both substantive and logistical assistance. The procedures are also communicated to the team during the pre-visit training session. Based on this information, DHS has taken actions to improve the U.S. government's process for assessing risks in the Visa Waiver Program by finalizing transparent protocols for country assessments.

    Recommendation: To improve the U.S. government's process for assessing risks in the Visa Waiver Program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with State and other appropriate agencies, should create real-time monitoring arrangements, including the identification of visa-waiver points of contact at U.S. embassies, for all 27 participating countries; and establish protocols, in coordination with appropriate headquarters offices, for direct communication between points of contact at overseas posts and the Office of International Enforcement's Visa Waiver Program Oversight Unit.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO recommendation, the Visa Waiver Program Office continuously monitors open source information and classified intelligence relating to the Visa Waiver Program to ensure awareness of changing conditions in VWP countries. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the VISA WAIVER PROGRAM OFFICE has established points of contact at U.S. embassies and Consulates in the 36 participating VWP countries to include Consular Section officials, Political Sections officials, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Attaches, Customs and Border Protection Attaches, and Legal Attaches. The VISA WAIVER PROGRAM OFFICE communicates informally and formally with these officials, that allows for continuous and substantive information exchange with VISA WAIVER PROGRAM OFFICE and posts, as well as between the VISA WAIVER PROGRAM OFFICE and Department of State (State) Bureau of Consular Affairs, the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs, and DHS Component Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, DHS formally requests information from State, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection during the biennial review process or for formal information requests outside the biennial review process.

    Recommendation: To improve the U.S. government's process for assessing risks in the Visa Waiver Program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with State and other appropriate agencies, should provide complete copies of the most recent country assessments to relevant stakeholders in headquarters and overseas posts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2006, GAO recommended (Border Security:Stronger Actions Needed to Assess and Mitigate Risks of the Visa Waiver Program, GAO-06-854, July 28, 2006) that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provide complete copies of the most recent country assessments to relevant stakeholders in headquarters and overseas posts. State's headquarters officers who cover diplomatic relations in Visa Waiver Program countries, as well as embassy officials in all of the posts we visited, stated that they had not seen the final country assessments. As a result, these officials were not able to communicate security concerns to officials in their host country. In January 2008, DHS placed the completed Visa Waiver Programs country assessments on the SIPRNET and post officials confirmed that these assessments were available to them during our site visits to Europe in Spring 2008. An official from the DHS Visa Waiver Program Office (VWPO) told us that DHS had drafted a memo to the State Department that requested that State notify post officials in Visa Waiver countries that they could access and read the VWPO's country security assessments on the SIPRNET. We received confirmation from a State Department official that the cable was sent out to posts in Visa Waiver countries on March 7, 2008. During our site visits to Paris and London in March 2008, post officials told us that they had received the cable with instructions on how to access the assessments on the SIPRNET. Based on this information, DHS has positively influenced post officials' ability to communicate security concerns to their officials in the host country and DHS has responded to our recommendation regarding the country security assessments.

    Recommendation: To improve the U.S. government's process for assessing risks in the Visa Waiver Program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with State and other appropriate agencies, should require periodic updates from points of contact at posts in countries where there are law enforcement or security concerns relevant to the Visa Waiver Program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO recommendation, the DHS the Visa Waiver Program Office has worked to build relationships with Embassy and Consulate officials in the Visa Waiver Program countries to ensure that relevant security and law enforcement concerns are address. DHS established points of contact with embassy officials in all the Visa Waiver Program countries. In addition, in interviews at several embassies, State Department and DHS officials at the posts indicated that correspondence with the Visa Waiver Program Office occurred regularly.

    Recommendation: To improve the U.S. government's process for mitigating the risks in the Visa Waiver Program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with State and other appropriate agencies, should require that all visa waiver countries provide the United States and Interpol with non-biographical data from lost or stolen issued passports, as well as from blank passports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In comments on a draft of the 2006 report, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stated that the issue of lost and stolen passport reporting was of paramount importance, and that they would work to ensure compliance among all visa waiver countries. The "Implementing the Recommendations of the 9-11 Commission Act of 2007" further required each visa waiver country to enter into an agreement with the United States to report lost and stolen passport information to the United States directly, or through Interpol. According to DHS, as of July 2010, all visa waiver countries report lost and stolen passport data, in some manner, to Interpol's Stolen and Lost Travel Document database, to which the DHS has real-time access of U.S. ports of entry. According to Interpol officials, GAO's July 2006 report was central to its ability to encourage all visa waiver countries to share their lost and stolen passport information with Interpol and its member countries. In addition, thirty-two of the 36 visa waiver countries have signed agreements with the United States on lost and stolen passport reporting. DHS continues to work with the remaining 4 countries to finalize similar agreements.

    Recommendation: To improve the U.S. government's process for mitigating the risks in the Visa Waiver Program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with State and other appropriate agencies, should develop and communicate clear standard operating procedures for the reporting of lost and stolen blank and issued passport data, including a definition of timely reporting and to whom in the U.S. government countries should report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2006, (Border Security:Stronger Actions Needed to Assess and Mitigate Risks of the Visa Waiver Program, GAO-06-854)we found that a key risk in the Visa Waiver Program is stolen blank passports from visa waiver countries, because detecting these passports at U.S. ports of entry is extremely difficult. The 2002 Enhanced Security and Visa Entry Reform Act provides that the Secretary of Homeland Security must terminate a country from the Visa Waiver Program if he and the Secretary of State jointly determine that the country is not reporting the theft of its blank passports to the United States on a timely basis. We reported that the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and State (State) had chosen not to terminate from the program countries that have failed to report these incidents. DHS officials told us that the inherent political, economic, and diplomatic implications associated with removing a country from the Visa Waiver Program make it difficult to enforce the statutory requirement in the broadest terms. Moreover, DHS had not established time frames or operating procedures to enforce this requirement. While the statute required visa waiver countries to certify that they report information on the theft of their blank passports to the United States on a timely basis, as of June 2006, DHS had not defined what constitutes timely. Moreover, the United States lacked a centralized mechanism for foreign governments to report all stolen passports. In particular, DHS had not defined to whom in the U.S. government participating countries should report this information. Therefore, we recommended that DHS develop and communicate clear standard operating procedures for the reporting of lost and stolen blank and issued passport data, including a definition of timely reporting and to whom in the U.S. government countries should report. In 2008, we reported that, in response to our recommendation, DHS established criteria for the reporting of lost and stolen passport data--including a definition of timely reporting and an explanation of to whom in the U.S. government countries should report.

    Recommendation: To improve the U.S. government's process for mitigating the risks in the Visa Waiver Program, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in coordination with State and other appropriate agencies, should develop and implement a plan to make Interpol's stolen travel document database automatically available during primary inspection at U.S. ports of entry.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2006, GAO recommended (Border Security: Stronger Actions Needed to Assess and Mitigate Risks of the Visa Waiver Program, GAO-06-854, July 28, 2006) that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) develop and implement a plan to make Interpol's stolen travel document database automatically available during primary inspection at U.S. ports of entry. In our report, we noted that DHS is not using Interpol's data to its full potential as a border screening tool because DHS does not automatically access the data at primary inspection. Since the publication of our 2006 report, DHS has taken action on our recommendation. DHS, in coordination with the U.S. National Central Bureau, as of June 2008, has initiated a system that allows DHS to screen foreign nationals' arriving at all U.S. international airports against Interpol's database of lost and stolen travel documents before arriving in the country. Results to date illustrate that the system identifies two to three hits per month for fraudulent passports. According to the National Central Bureau, Interpol's database has intercepted passports that were not identified by DHS's other screening systems. Access to Interpol's database demonstrates DHS's actions to use the Interpol data to its full potential as a border screening tool.

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