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The U.S. special-registration system needs to go

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By Robert Bonner and Edward Alden
Saturday, November 21, 2009

Is traveling to the United States a "harrowing experience," as a Pakistani delegate to the International Olympic Committee claimed when the IOC rejected Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Games? The vast majority of the 25 million visitors arriving from overseas at U.S. airports each year experience no more than an inconvenience. But for hundreds of thousands, including Pakistanis such as the IOC delegate, it can be both difficult and unpleasant.

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Men from Pakistan and two dozen other countries face onerous "special registration" procedures under the National Security Entry-Exit System set up after Sept. 11, 2001. While this was an understandable precaution in the aftermath of the attacks, more precise and effective measures have since been developed. The Department of Homeland Security inspector general agreed this week to audit the program, which was already under high-level review at the State Department. The Obama administration should promptly eliminate the program.

The Justice Department launched the system in 2002 to scrutinize the group thought to present the highest risk -- men from countries where al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups have a presence. Most visitors to the States are interviewed only by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer who inspects their passport. The men in the group, however, are automatically pulled aside for "secondary inspection" and are often kept waiting for hours. Even those who have visited the United States multiple times, or live here on work or student visas, are subject to detailed questioning and searches before being allowed to enter the country.

Further, these men can leave the country only through designated airports where the federal government has set up exit controls. Failure to "check out" through these airports could result in an individual being barred from returning or emigrating.

Faced with such obstacles, many men from these countries have given up on coming to the United States. While the number of visits from overseas had nearly rebounded to pre-Sept. 11 levels before the recession, travel from Muslim countries remains sharply depressed. This widens the gulf between the United States and the Islamic world, which further inhibits U.S. efforts to counter extremist propaganda in some regions. Meanwhile, surveys in Arab countries have found that favorability toward the United States is 25 to 30 percent higher among those who have traveled to the States or have a relative living here.

The special-registration program has also soured U.S. relations with some friendly countries. Indonesia, the largest majority-Muslim country, was outraged to be included in the program despite showing strong support for the United States after the 2001 attacks. Today, the number of visitors from Indonesia is about half that of a decade ago.

Such costs would be worth it if the program proved effective in stopping or deterring terrorists from entering the country. But the 9/11 Commission found no evidence of this, and none has been offered since.

U.S. border screening procedures have improved tremendously in recent years, which further diminishes the value of the special-registration program. Now, all visitors who require visas -- including citizens from the countries requiring "special registration" -- are interviewed by U.S. consular officers and fingerprinted. The prints are checked again by Customs and Border Protection upon the traveler's arrival in the States.

Airlines must provide detailed information on all arriving passengers, giving customs officials hours to run names through the agency's automated risk assessment system. That's much better than having 60 seconds at the primary inspection kiosk. These names are checked against the terrorist watch list and are scrutinized for various intelligence-driven indicators of potential terrorist threat. Those deemed potential threats are subject to secondary counterterrorism questioning by specially trained border officers.

These more careful methods are effective. Raed al-Banna, a young man with no history of terrorist links, was pulled aside at Chicago's O'Hare airport in 2003 after the computer targeting system identified him as deserving additional scrutiny. After questioning he was refused entry and sent back to Jordan; two years later, he killed 132 people in a suicide car bombing in Iraq.

We know that terrorist groups are recruiting in Europe and have sought to train female operatives. A program that pulls aside only men from Muslim countries is not the sophisticated response required to counter such efforts. Further, eliminating the program would in no way restrict U.S. border officials' authority to question and search anyone; it would simply end the automatic scrutiny of a certain class of individuals.

As the United States continues the struggle against terrorism, it should constantly evaluate the best tools at hand. Special registration is not one of these, and it should be abolished.

Robert Bonner, the first commissioner of Customs and Border Protection at the Department of Homeland Security, is senior principal at Sentinel HS Group, a Vienna-based homeland-security consulting firm. Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was project director for the recent Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy.


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