U.S. Increases Traveler Screenings to Catch Foreign Fighters

Airport security
Passengers make their way through a security checkpoint at John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York, on October 11, 2014. Airport screeners working for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reportedly failed to detect weapons more than 70 percent of the time in undercover tests. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Concerned about foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq, Washington imposed extra security measures on Monday for travelers from countries, mostly in Europe and Asia, whose citizens do not need a visa to get into the United States.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said people from countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program will have to provide additional information on an electronic application they need to file to be eligible to enter.

"We are taking this step to enhance the security of the Visa Waiver Program, to learn more about travelers from countries from whom we do not require a visa," Johnson said in a statement.

The move was in response to the security threat posed by the possible radicalization of foreign fighters in Syria who hold Western passports and thus would not arouse suspicion at airports or other entry points.

Thirty-eight countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program, or VWP, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany and other European countries as well as Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, according to the State Department.

"DHS is concerned about the risks posed by the situation in Syria and Iraq, where increasing instability has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, including many from VWP countries," the DHS official said on condition of anonymity.

The official cited cases in which people traveled from Syria to Europe and carried out attacks, including a museum shooting in Belgium in May, as well as public threats against the United States in response to its involvement in Iraq.

Islamic State militants have released videos of the beheading of American civilians that blamed U.S. air strikes for their actions.

Visitors from countries in the Visa Waiver Program must get approved through an online system called Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, and pay a fee.

Under the rules that took effect Monday, people from those countries will have to provide additional information in the ESTA travel application. That includes other names used, parents' names, national identification number, contact information, employment information and city of birth, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection announcement.

The DHS official said the additional data will help identify threats or detect suspected terrorists.

Citizens of Canada and Mexico, which share borders with the United States, do not need visas to enter the country as part of a separate program.

Some members of Congress have sought to scale back or cancel the Visa Waiver Program in light of the foreign fighters threat. Democratic U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii in September called for a suspension of the program in countries that have large numbers of Islamic extremists fighting abroad.

Monday's CBP announcement on the changes said the Visa Waiver Program does not make Americans more vulnerable, as participating countries must have a high degree of security cooperation with the United States.

Republican Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, said the additional requirements were "a step in the right direction to counter this growing threat."