U.S. seeks improvements to sharing of security info

Officials would like European Union to share passenger data before planes take off, for instance.

Since attacks in the United States five years ago Monday focused world attention on terrorism, the European Union has taken strides to help fight terrorism. However, the United States is currently in discussions with Europe on two information-sharing agreements.

According to Jarrod Agen, a spokesman from the U.S. Homeland Security Department, the United States currently is given passenger data of those traveling from the European Union 15 minutes after airplanes depart. The information includes basic information such as names and birthdates. The United States wants to get that information before take-off, he said.

Secondly, the United States is negotiating for improvements in the information the United States receives about the booking of tickets, as well as itinerary details. Currently, the U.S. is restricted on how much it can share the information and for how long it can be retained, Agen said.

The European Union has probably been the most productive in the field of biometrics, according to James Carafano, a Heritage Foundation homeland security scholar. The European Commission recently said that by June 2009, two fingerprints will be added to the microchips in biometrics-based passports.

Jonah Czerwinski, a homeland security director for the Center for the Study of the Presidency, said the "EU is moving farther than anyone else in developing passports with biometrics."

Biometrics in passports could help alleviate some concern related to an agreement on travel within the European Union and a U.S. program that waives the need for visas from people in friendly countries. Under EU rules, citizens in participating countries can move freely without being subject to internal border controls.

According to Czerwinski, more countries are moving to join the agreement, which he said has a "border security cost" but an "economic payoff."

The European Union has databases with people's security information, according to Telmo Baltazar, the EU counselor for justice and home affairs. "We can only afford to create this possibility by putting in place adequate security measures," Baltazar said. The union also is considering a full biometric-based entry-exist system similar to the US-VISIT program for tracking visitors.

Czerwinski said Europe must find a way that addresses a cultural issue that dates to World War II: people not wanting to show identification papers.

Visa reciprocity between the United States and Europe remains an issue. Americans traveling to all EU nations do not require visas, but citizens from 10 of the 25 EU nations must have visas for U.S. travel. "This creates a serious issue of a lack of full reciprocity," Baltazar said.

Biometrics could provide more faith in passports and result in the visa program becoming less of an issue, Czerwinski said.

The European Commission on Monday released a list of initiatives it has taken in the fight against terrorism, including a pending decision on electronic customs and a framework on security and safeguarding liberties.