President Bush said yesterday that he was surprised by his administration's plans to require U.S. citizens to show a passport when reentering the country from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean, and he ordered an administration review of whether the entry rules should be relaxed.
The changed policy, in the planning stages for months and announced April 5, is aimed at preventing terrorists from entering the country by exploiting what U.S. officials believe is today's overly permissive policy. In most cases, U.S. citizens must show only driver's licenses to reenter from Mexico and Canada. The new rules also will require Mexicans and Canadians to present a passport or another official document to enter this country.
The change has raised concerns among businesses, such as trucking and tourism companies, that rely on easy access to Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean islands -- the latter a hot destination for many U.S. travelers. Yet the concern expressed by Bush is unusual, since the White House signed off on the change.
"When I first read that in the newspaper about the need to have passports, particularly the day crossings that take place, about a million for instance in the state of Texas, I said, 'What's going on here?' " Bush said when asked about the new rules at an American Society of Newspaper Editors convention. "I thought there was a better way to expedite the legal flow of traffic and people."
The president said he has instructed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and officials from the Department of Homeland Security to see if there is enough flexibility in the new policy to accommodate regular travelers, including truckers and tourists. Bush said one option might be electronic fingerprint imaging, "to serve as a so-called passport for daily traffic."
A senior U.S. government official involved in the policy change said Homeland Security and State Department officials had vetted the change exhaustively with the White House before announcing it. The officials said they always anticipated some changes would be needed.
In a speech to the editors, Bush focused mostly on rising gasoline prices, the administration's energy policy, Social Security and his efforts to spread democracy in the Middle East.
In the question-and-answer session that followed, Bush defended the administration's refusal to declassify more information since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and said he is in the beginning stages of selling his plan to restructure Social Security. He also discussed the death penalty, China and other issues.
Bush, who presided over more executions as governor of Texas than any other governor, said there is no contradiction between supporting the death penalty and defending what he calls a "culture of life" by intervening to try to save Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman in Florida who died last month.
"The difference between the case of Terri Schiavo and the case of a convicted killer is the difference between guilt and innocence," he said.
Polls continue to show a lack of public support for his plan to allow workers younger than 55 to put some of their Social Security taxes into private accounts, and Bush said it is going to "take a while" to persuade Congress to restructure the federal retirement program.
At an event in Ohio today, the president plans to step up his campaign in support of private accounts by highlighting what he will describe as the millions of government workers who were allowed to opt out of the system years ago and refuse to jump back in because their private accounts are doing well, a senior administration official said.
The account idea is opposed by almost every Democrat in Congress and many Republicans. "Some in Congress would rather not discuss the issue at all," Bush said.
"They're not going to respond until the people say clearly, 'There's a problem, and what are you going to do to fix it?' And it takes a while, frankly," he added.
Although Democrats say they are thwarting Bush by refusing to consider personal accounts, he said: "The more resistance I find for people to protect the status quo, the more determined I am to continue building the case that there is a problem and assuring seniors that they're going to get their check."
Speaking about reports that the administration paid media figures to promote its policies, Bush said it was wrong for the Education Department to pay conservative columnist Armstrong Williams to tout its policies, and he said viewers should be alerted when the government provides a news clip.
"It's deceptive to the American people if it's not disclosed," he said.
He was less clear about whether the administration will allow the public -- and reporters -- greater access to documents and information. Bush said he supports an open government, but only if it does not compromise the safety of the American people -- and his own privacy.
"There's got to be a certain sense of privacy," said Bush, who said he no longer sends e-mails. "You're entitled to how I make decisions and you're entitled to ask questions, which I answer. I don't think you're entitled to read my mail between my daughters and me."
He was noncommittal about efforts by ASNE to provide more information, more quickly to people seeking it.
"I know there is a tension now between" what can be disclosed "without jeopardizing the war on terror," Bush said. "And I understand there's a suspicion that . . . we're too security-conscious."
The president, who is pushing Congress to liberalize immigration laws to establish a guest-worker program for millions of Mexicans, said the government has to be careful in balancing its desire for safety with its commitment to freedom.
"The danger with the immigration issue is that it can . . . lead to nativism and encourage behavior which is really not how Americans should view the world," he said.
On China, Bush said he hopes its government will adopt a more flexible currency to help with the trade deficit. "On human rights, we expect China to be a society that welcomes all religions. When it comes to foreign policy, we expect China to cooperate in the war on terror," he said. "And we expect there to be peace with Taiwan."
Asked whether he thinks House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has become a liability because of the controversies surrounding him, Bush said, "He's been a very effective leader." He added: "I'm looking forward to working with him."
Staff writer John Mintz contributed to this report.