WASHINGTON — After last week’s Paris attack, some top U.S. lawmakers want to review a visa program that they worry could enable similar attacks on U.S. soil.
They fear that citizens of other countries who are associated with or sympathetic to the French terrorists’ cause might attempt to come to the United States using the Department of Homeland Security’s Visa Waiver Program, which allows residents of 38 countries to enter the United States without visas. Business groups and security analysts are pushing back, saying the program serves as a vital economic engine for the country — and helps improve security.
“We have a lot of questions about how to keep America safe,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said after a closed intelligence briefing about the Paris attacks.
Mikulski said it was important to take another look at the program to better understand its purpose. The U.S. also needs to find out more about what security threats exist in the countries involved and who from those countries are on watch lists, she said.
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Thousands of Europeans flocked to Syria to join jihadi fighters in the past year, according to European media reports. Some are then going back to their home countries hardened by their experiences. One of the men involved in last week’s attack, Saïd Kouachi, traveled in 2011 to Yemen, where he received training from an al-Qaida branch before returning to Paris to help carry out the assault at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead and 11 wounded.
The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, on Sunday called the Visa Waiver Program the “Achilles’ heel of America” while voicing her concerns on CNN about a U.S. attack.
The purpose of the Visa Waiver Program has been to promote tourism and business travel to the United States. Last month, local officials from South Carolina and Kentucky were lauding the economic benefits and promoting the program’s expansion at local chamber and visitor-bureau events. In 2012, nearly 20 million visitors entered the United States under the program, accounting for 40 percent of overseas visitors, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report on the program.
A pro-business group that has advocated for the program’s expansion, the Partnership for a New American Economy, estimates that international travelers spend an average of $4,500 on their trips to the United States. A December study authored by the group found that in the first five years of participating in the program, the number of tourists arriving from a participating country typically increased 16 percent.
“There is a huge economic boon to the U.S. from people who come here to spend money,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director for the partnership. “And that creates jobs. We’ve got real security concerns, but we’re not going to lock down our borders and not let anyone come here. The question should be how do we balance security and the economy.”
U.S. officials have said that French citizens Saïd and Chérif Kouachi — the gunmen who stormed the newspaper offices — had been on a U.S. terrorist watch list for years. They likely would have been stopped, according to Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security.
The Visa Waiver Program helps prevent such attacks from occurring here, he said. Baker said the U.S. government used the program to gain intelligence about foreign nationals that they didn’t have before. U.S. officials were able to drive countries that wanted to participate to share more information and use more secure passports with biometrics and electronic checks, he said.
“For the first time in history, we got agreements with all of those countries that they would give us information about the criminal records of people coming to the United States,” he said. “Something they had never done because they were worried about privacy.”
In light of the Paris attacks, Baker said the government should review any security vulnerabilities. But once those are identified, officials can again use continued participation in the program as a way to pressure countries, he said.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the Paris attacks were part of a “war on Western civilization.” But he didn’t think the U.S. government was in a position to suggest changes to the Visa Waiver Program.
He noted that the U.S. government heavily scrutinizes even those individuals who come from countries that don’t require visas. He said the Paris attacks offered an opportunity for U.S. officials to collect more intelligence on potential terrorists. He said intelligence officials would investigate the French terrorists’ contacts and communications to see whom they’d talked to, whom they were meeting with and whether there were additional threats that stemmed from the Paris attack.
“The reality is that as long as there is an intent in the world to commit terrorism here or abroad, then we have to take it just as seriously as if the act happened here,” he said.