Travelers' ID program on fast track despite Hill concerns

By Chris Strohm

November 21, 2006

A senior Homeland Security Department official said Tuesday the department still hoped to implement border crossing requirements by January 2008 for travelers entering the United States from Canada and Mexico, even though Congress gave the administration a deadline extension because of concerns that rushing the program might disrupt travel and trade.

The department is working to establish a rule that would require U.S. citizens and foreign travelers entering the United States by land ports of entry to have a secure, government-approved identification document starting in January 2008, said Paul Rosenzweig, acting assistant secretary for international affairs.

That date coincides with an original deadline under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. But an amendment to extend the deadline to June 1, 2009 was passed as part of the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security appropriations bill, which President Bush signed into law last month.

"We have every intention of implementing the land rule more rapidly than June 2009," Rosenzweig said during a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We expect to move as quickly as we can." He said a standard identification card is needed because U.S. border officials currently have to accept about 8,000 different types of documents.

But congressional aides appearing at the forum urged the administration to use the deadline extension to work out problems in meeting the requirement. Issues that need to be resolved, they said, include ensuring the security and effectiveness of radio frequency identification technology for new border passport cards; ensuring that the necessary border infrastructure is in place; producing the new passport cards, and doing massive public outreach.

"I would say that more data and more testing across the board would bring more confidence to the process," said Lorianne Moss, an aide to Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Indeed, Coleman and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, sent the Homeland Security and State departments a letter last week asking them to use the additional time to ensure the program is efficiently implemented without additional hardship to U.S. residents. Moss said she expects more congressional hearings and oversight on the issue during the next Congress.

Meanwhile, a senior State Department official did not share Rosenzweig's optimism that the land rule could be implemented by January 2008.

"We're trying to get this done as quickly as possible but obviously we have real issues," said Frank Moss, deputy assistant secretary of State for passport services. "We know we have a big challenge out there on the land border."

He outlined upcoming milestones that must be met before the rule can go into effect. For example, the administration expects industry comments by Dec. 1 on its proposed RFID technology, then must do a contract award and testing for card production.

"We're going to get this right," he said. "I don't know what the timeline is because we have so many steps to go through."

He added that the State Department hopes to begin card production by next summer. Congress also required that the technology be validated by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Travelers coming by sea ports of entry will also be required to have a secure identification document by June 2009. Officials, however, do not expect many problems with those travelers.

By Chris Strohm

November 21, 2006