view counter

Visa WaiverNot all Visa Waiver program nations share information with U.S. as required: GAO

Published 8 June 2016

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows nationals from the thirty-eight VWP countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to ninety days without a visa. To help prevent terrorists and others who present a threat from travelling to the United States, DHS requires VWP countries, among other things, to enter into information-sharing agreements with the United States. In a public version of a classified January 2016 report on the VWP, the GAO examines the extent to which VWP countries have implemented different agreements with the United States which VWP requires.

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows nationals from the thirty-eight VWP countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to ninety days without a visa. To help prevent terrorists and others who present a threat from travelling to the United States, DHS requires VWP countries, among other things, to enter into information-sharing agreements with the United States. In addition, U.S. law requires DHS to evaluate, at least once every two years, the effect of each VWP country’s participation on U.S. law enforcement, security, and immigration enforcement interests; determine whether the country should continue in the program; and report on its determination to Congress.

In a new report on the VWP, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examines the extent to which VWP countries have implemented the required agreements. GAO also examines the extent to which DHS evaluated VWP countries and reported to Congress as required. GAO reviewed documents related to the VWP, including a sample of DHS reports. In addition, GAO interviewed U.S. officials in Washington, D.C., and U.S. and foreign officials in four VWP countries, selected on the basis of factors such as high estimated numbers of foreign terrorist fighters.

The GAO has just published a public version of a classified report GAO issued in January 2016.

GAO says that all 38 countries participating in the VWP have entered into required agreements, or their equivalents, to (1) report lost and stolen passports, (2) share identity information about known or suspected terrorists, and (3) share criminal history information.

Not all countries, however, have shared information through the agreements. DHS reported that all VWP countries have reported passport information through the first agreement, but more than a third of VWP countries are not sharing terrorist identity information through the second agreement, and more than a third of the countries have not yet shared criminal history information through the third agreement. While VWP countries may share information through other means, U.S. agency officials told GAO that information sharing through the agreements is essential for national security.

In August 2015, DHS decided to require VWP countries to implement agreements to share terrorist identity and criminal history information; previously, VWP countries were required to enter into, but not to implement, these agreements. GAO says that contrary to standard program management practices, however, DHS did not establish timeframes for instituting the amended requirements. In December 2015, Congress passed a law requiring that VWP countries fully implement information-sharing agreements in order to participate in the program. “Timeframes for working with VWP countries to implement their agreements could help DHS enforce U.S. legal requirements and could strengthen DHS’s ability to protect the United States and its citizens,” GAO says.

GAO notes that its analysis of a non-generalizable sample of twelve internal DHS reports, each evaluating one VWP country, found the reports assessed the effects of the countries’ participation on U.S. law enforcement, security, and immigration enforcement interests, as required by U.S. law. Since 2011, when GAO last reviewed the VWP, DHS has improved its timeliness in reporting to Congress at least once every two years its determinations of whether countries should continue in the program. Nonetheless, as of 31 October 2015, GAO found that about a quarter of DHS’s most recent VWP congressional reports were submitted, or remained outstanding, five or more months past the statutory deadlines. As a result, Congress may lack timely information needed to conduct oversight of the VWP and assess whether further modifications are necessary to prevent terrorists from exploiting the program.

GAO recommends that DHS should (1) specify timeframes for working with VWP countries on the requirement to implement information-sharing agreements, and (2) take steps to improve its timeliness in reporting to Congress on whether VWP countries should continue in the program.

GAO notes that DHS concurred with the recommendations.

— Read more in Visa Waiver Program: DHS Should Take Steps to Ensure Timeliness of Information Needed to Protect U.S. National Security, GAO-16-498 (6 May 2016)