White House crafting one international traveler program

The Bush administration is developing one international program for frequent travelers to and from the United States, Homeland Security Department officials told Congress on Wednesday.

"We're going to move towards a global enrollment system," Elaine Dezenski, acting assistant secretary for border and transportation security at the department, told a House Homeland Security subcommittee. She explained that the program could consist of one database for a myriad of current border-crossing programs.

The department would model the initiative after a contentious domestic registered-travel system it is currently testing at certain U.S. airports. The pilot project gives participating frequent travelers access to a special line with quicker security screenings if they pay a fee and voluntarily submit biographical and biometric data.

Expanding the initiative internationally is likely to raise concerns among civil rights and privacy advocates who have had trepidations about a domestic program. Critics are concerned about the program's cost, how Homeland Security officials manage such a program and ensure privacy, how passengers can resolve disputes, and whether the effort will improve security.

The international initiative could incorporate programs for U.S. citizens and Mexican nationals crossing back and forth for work or to visit family; a new mandate that requires American citizens returning from Bermuda, the Caribbean and Central America to show passports; and a program for registered commercial truckers entering the country on the Northern and Southern borders.

Dezenski and the State Department's Frank Moss on Wednesday were forced to defend the Bush administration's decision last week to back down from passport requirements for foreign visitors entering the country without visas. U.S. officials gave countries that are part of the "visa waiver" program an extra year before they must issue passports to their citizens with imbedded biometric information such as fingerprints or scanned irises.

"In doing so, the department appears to be keeping up its record of breaking deadlines it, Congress or the president has set," said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee.

Panel Chairman Christopher Cox, R-Calif., also refuted the administration's claim that letting visa-waiver countries issue passports with digital photographs qualifies as a biometric standard.

"That's not biometric technology in my view," Cox said, adding that a digital photograph and embedded chip with biographical information is not a measurement for inspection. "There is no mysticism to it."

Dezenski and Moss said the international community is culturally opposed to scanned fingerprints because many perceive that it is as if the United States is "booking" them for a crime.

Moss told the panel that the United States has not endorsed scanned fingerprints for U.S. passports and that the country must be careful about imposing requirements on other countries that could reciprocate the mandate on U.S. citizens.