Ready, Set, Wait

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

THINK THIS summer's endless lines at domestic airports are spirit-sapping? Just wait: It's bound to get a good deal worse. Under long-standing orders from Congress to keep closer track of the comings and goings of foreigners, the Bush administration is preparing a new procedure -- namely, fingerprint-gathering -- that may further slow the pace of those serpentine airport lines.

The hassle, we are sorry to say, is unavoidable. Biometric data has been gathered for foreign nationals entering the country for several years, but not for those leaving. That makes little sense. Without collecting information from departing foreigners, there's little way to monitor who remains in the country and who has overstayed, or to establish a searchable database that could be a potentially valuable anti-terrorism tool. Many of the Sept. 11 hijackers stayed in the United States past their visa expiration dates, and if anything is clear from the recent statements of officials, it is that al-Qaeda and like-minded terrorist groups remain intent on further attacks on American soil.

Unfortunately, if predictably, there are problems of implementation. One of them we've noted previously: the curious decision by officials at the Department of Homeland Security to gather data at airports and seaports while neglecting land crossings. Officials say that the technology is simply not up to the task -- but a database that is full of holes won't be of much use.

Another potential glitch is the question of where to put the additional fingerprint-gathering machines at airports. DHS wants them at airline check-in counters; the airlines do not. The airlines make an efficiency argument -- that more and more passengers are able to pre-print their boarding passes and otherwise avoid check-in counters. But the fact remains that the large majority of passengers, particularly those on international flights, still check in and check baggage with the airlines. The fingerprint-gathering technology is proven and is relatively simple, unobtrusive and fast. The burden that airlines are being asked to assume seems bearable, given the security considerations -- even if it does make those lines move a little more slowly.

DHS is implementing other security enhancements, including having access to passenger lists for incoming international flights a few days before the flights depart from countries whose citizens do not need visas to visit the United States. This seems a modest request, and it is certainly preferable to canceling the visa waiver program altogether, as some extremist members of Congress have suggested. Necessarily, international travel in an age of terrorism will not be hassle-free, but the United States must remain as open and welcoming as possible.

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