Lawmakers challenge need for biometric chips in passports

Leading members of the House Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Border Security and Claims subcommittee yesterday challenged the widespread view that U.S. requirements on foreign passports mean that those passports will have a biometric chip as an identifier.

The full committee and subcommittee chairmen held that countries could comply with the federal government's passport law by using secure digital photographs instead, a viewpoint that calls into question the need for Congress to extend an Oct. 26 deadline for the countries to establish biometric passport programs.

The deadline extension question is critical, because if the U.S. begins to require visas from travelers arriving from the 'visa waiver' countries, the State Department could be forced to process millions of additional visa applications annually. In addition, millions of American travelers to countries such as France, Germany, Japan, Australia and Great Britain probably would have to get visas from those countries before leaving.

The Bush administration is widely expected to ask Congress to extend the Oct. 26 deadline for an additional year, following a one-year extension Congress granted last year.

In testimony before the subcommittee, Elaine Dezenski, the Homeland Security Department's acting assistant secretary for policy and planning in the Border and Transportation Security Directorate, said secretary Michael Chertoff planned to meet with Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) in the next few weeks to discuss topics such as a deadline extension.

But in comments he submitted to the hearing, Sensenbrenner cast doubt on the possibility that he would approve a blanket deadline extension. He emphasized that the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, which mandated biometric passports, called only for a biometric identifier'which could be a digital photograph'rather than requiring a chip.

The law requires that the biometric passports comply with standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization. When the law was passed, ICAO was honing standards for digital photographs. Since 2002, ICAO has been developing standards for contactless chips.

'Congress, in passing the act, anticipated that ICAO would establish reasonable, cost-effective standards which relied on existing technology,' Sensenbrenner wrote. 'That the ICAO would become enmeshed in new and unproven technology, and that the [European Union] should choose an elaborate and expensive path to meet the requirement has led to consequences that are regrettable, but not insurmountable.'

Sensenbrenner said that 12 of the 27 countries that participate in the visa-free travel agreement, known as visa waiver countries, would have programs to comply with the law in place by October. The State Department has a list of 14 countries that it believes can comply, but it is a different list than Sensenbrenner's.

At least one country, Ireland, plans to comply with the federal law on time by providing a digital photograph, and not a chip, in its passports, according to congressional staff. The European Union's requirement for passports with biometric chip data takes effect in 2006.

Subcommittee chairman John Hostettler (R-Ind.) agreed with Sensenbrenner, stating, 'The 'chip standards' referred to in newspaper accounts which are effecting the [compliance] delay are those established by the European Union, to apply to its member countries. If a visa waiver country decides to employ a chip as a security improvement to confirm identity, then the law requires it to comply with ICAO standards, but it is not currently a requirement of U.S. law or of published U.S. government rules for the program.'

Hostettler added, 'A chip is not essential to enforcing the requirement established by Congress. The Border Security Act required only a biometric identifier and document security that met ICAO standards. The EU's efforts to improve security are laudable, but the deadline is important to assure the public that we're serious about border security, and about protecting against future terrorist attacks potentially launched from Europe.'

The subcommittee hearing featured testimony from Rudi Veestraeten, director general for consular affairs of Belgium, who described how his country had complied with the 2002 Act by adopting digital chip technology. Belgium has issued tens of thousands of biometric passports with chips and its readers at airports are working well, he said.

While Hostettler and Sensenbrenner cast doubt on the prospects for a deadline extension, Rep. Shiela Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), emphasized the need for the deadline extension as a practical matter.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) agreed, saying, 'At some point we will have to come to grips with extending the deadline.'

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