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Biometric Passports: Not Ready for Prime Time

WASHINGTON -- At least another two years is needed for the United States and 27 other countries to meet a congressional mandate to include biometric features in their passports, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told a Senate panel Tuesday.

The testimony came just one day after the U.S. House of Representatives approved a one-year extension to meet the passport biometric requirements for countries in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows visitors from Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Australia and 22 other countries to visit the United States without having to obtain a visa.

In 2002, Congress approved the Enhanced Border Security Act and required that no later than Oct. 26 of this year the governments of the VWP countries must certify that they have programs to issue their nationals machine-readable passports that are tamper resistant and incorporate biometric identifiers.

The Senate is considering the House legislation, but Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the DHS, told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "Acknowledging the current state of technology, and the potential for harm to international relations with our closest allies," the DHS and the Department of State are requesting the deadline be extended to Nov. 30, 2006.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and DHS Secretary Tom Ridge have also asked for a two-year extension.

Maura Harty, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, told the committee, "We face complex technological and operational issues, including the security of the passport data on the chips and the international interoperability of readers and biometric passports."

Harty said the United States does not expect to receive large shipments of the 64k chips needed for "contactless chip" passports until the spring of next year.

"Like other governments, we expect deliveries to ramp up during 2005, but we ourselves will only be able to complete our transition to a biometric passport by the end of 2005," Harty said.

According to Harty, none of the larger VWP countries -- Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Ireland or Spain -- will be able to meet this year's Oct. 26 deadline set by Congress.

And even if they did meet the deadline, Hutchinson said, "The DHS is not currently in a position to acquire and deploy equipment and software to biometrically compare and authenticate these documents."

Hutchinson added the issue is "not a lack of will or commitment to achieving the standard by these countries, but rather challenging scientific and technical issues."

Just last month, for instance, the standards for biometric passports were approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). They provide for the inclusion of a full-face image on a contactless chip as well as minimum chip storage capacity, security standards and technical benchmarks.

Later this week in London, the ICAO e-Passports Task Force will meet to provide detailed specifications and clarification of international standards.

"This is to enable manufacturers of readers and writers to refine their hardware and software prior to undergoing any further pilots or testing," Hutchinson said.

Next March, Harty said, the United States, Australia and other countries will begin global interoperability tests. The testing will take place in airports and will involve air crew and regular passengers presenting their biometric passports at ports of entry where the passports will be read electronically.

"Now that we have technical standards, all VWP countries can begin full development and deployment of their respective biometric programs," Harty said. "However, given the time it has taken to resolve these complex operational issues, few, if any, will be able to meet the Oct. 26, 2004, deadline."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Orin Hatch (R-Utah) told both Harty and Hutchinson he was "concerned with the national security implications that such a lengthy extension might cause."

Harty said if the deadline is not extended, "we anticipate a significant adverse impact on (State) Department operations overseas." Without the extension, travelers from VWP countries with passports issued after Oct. 26 without biometrics will need visas to visit the United States. Harty estimated that the demand for non-immigrant visas will jump by more than five million, representing a 70 percent increase in the State Department's workload.

"There is no easy solution to handling this tremendous increase in our workload," Harty said. "This is a temporary problem, because the workload will progressively decrease as VWP countries begin mass production of biometric passports."

In the interim, however, Harty said, "We need to implement plans for a massive surge in visa processing, which would involve extra expense, diversion of personnel from vital functions and extending service hours, perhaps even to around-the-clock, 24/7 visa processing at some posts."