Ministerial conference to focus on counterterrorism, disaster preparedness
Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff plans to discuss security cooperation with his counterparts from the Group of Eight (G8) nations during the week of June 12, including the exchange of aircraft passenger name records (PNR) with European Union countries.
Speaking in Washington June 9, Chertoff said that at the G8 Justice and Home Affairs Ministerial Conference he will discuss the European Court of Justice's recent decision that the current exchange of PNR data between the EU and the United States is "legally flawed." Chertoff said the Bush administration is "studying the decision ... and we want to work with our European counterparts on the way forward."
Since 2004, airlines based in the European Union have been providing information on passengers flying to the United States to U.S. authorities as directed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under its Secure Flight Program.The United States warned that failure to comply would result in fines assessed per passenger on board as well as revocation of landing rights within the United States. The passenger information supplied included up to 34 pieces of data on each passenger, including name, reservation date, travel agent, itinerary, form of payment, flight number and seating information.
The European Court of Justice has ruled that the deal violates European Community law, and has concluded it should be voided, but also ruled that data transfers can continue until September 30. At that time, passengers on EU-based airlines coming into the United States likely will be subject to prolonged or extensive security checks. These airlines now fear they will lose passengers to their U.S. competitors, which will continue transferring passenger data.
The secretary said the current goal is to continue to expand the Secure Flight Program but also to handle any concerns expressed by those "who feel they are unfairly being impeded."
"[T]his kind of information, while not particularly private, is critical for law enforcement authorities and immigration authorities to detect people who should not be allowed to enter the country or who pose a risk to others," he said. "Without this data, in effect, we're without our radar. We have no way of determining in advance who is coming into the country" and might pose a risk.
He added that the European Court's ruling ensures that there will be no lowering of data-protection standards and no effect on any passengers, and that a high level of security will be maintained.
Chertoff said he also plans to discuss avian flu preparedness and efforts to combat human trafficking, promote cybersecurity, mitigate terrorism recruitment and adopt new technologies for detecting explosives.
"We are more secure as Americans when we are working to elevate the general level of security around the world," said Chertoff as to why homeland security issues would be discussed overseas. "Terrorism itself, of course is global; it knows no boundaries," he added.
UNITED STATES WELCOMES VISITORS
Chertoff added he wants to make it clear that the United States welcomes visitors. "We don't want our security measures to impede legitimate travel and legitimate tourism," he said.
The Department of Homeland Security will be working with the State Department to greet international guests by expediting the visa process, retooling airports to make them more welcoming and creating ways to develop smarter screening that will raise security as well as increase efficiency. (See related article.)
When asked about allowing citizens of the 25 European Union countries to enter the United States without a visa, a benefit that all U.S. passport holders receive when visiting the EU states, Chertoff responded that to comply with the Visa Waiver Program certain legal requirements must be met.
"[T]his is not an issue of setting a deadline, because whether the standards are met is really a function of the performance having been accomplished," he said.
The Visa Waiver Program enables citizens of 27 countries to visit the United States for tourism or trade for up to 90 days without obtaining visas.
WESTERN HEMISPHERE TRAVEL INITIATIVE
Chertoff also discussed implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which would require visitors to and from North America to have a passport or other accepted document that establishes the bearer's identity and nationality to enter or re-enter the United States.
The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative stipulates that anyone applying for admission to the United States, including U.S. citizens, must present secure travel documents that denote citizenship and serve as proof of identity. Other forms of identification, less secure than a passport, historically have been accepted for citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Bermuda. (See related article.)
Homeland Security and State formally proposed regulations to implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative September 1, 2005. If adopted, those regulations would take effect in phases, applying the new passport or secure document requirement to air and sea travel to or from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda as of December 31, 2006. By December 31, 2007, the passport requirement would extend to all land border crossings.
Chertoff said he wants to use an efficient means of identification that meets the standards of the law that does not have to be a passport but would be inexpensive and accessible.
"What we're eager to do is work with the Canadian government on any alternative that will be easy for Canadians to meet this security standard," said the secretary.
Chertoff also discussed U.S. immigration reform efforts. "We are looking for a solution and we'll welcome people through a comprehensive program where they register themselves, where it fits with our labor market, and where we have real control of who comes across the border," he commented. (See Immigration Reform.)