GOP Lawmakers Question Program Fast Tracking Saudi Travelers into U.S.

GOP Lawmakers Question Program Fast Tracking Saudi Travelers into U.S.

Republican subcommittee chairs of the House Committee on Homeland Security, led by Chairman Mike McCaul (R – TX), sent a letter on Wednesday to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano regarding their concern over DHS’s action to extend the Global Entry trusted traveler program to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

The Global Entry Program, according to Customs Border Patrol, “allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.” It is intended for frequent travelers, but there is no minimum number of trips a passenger needs to take to qualify for the program. Participants can gain entry into the U.S. by using the automated kiosks at certain airports.

Although travelers must be pre-approved for the program by going through what CBP calls a “rigorous background check and interview,” Republican Homeland Security Committee members say that extending the program to KSA travelers raises “potential risks.”

According to the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), U.S. allies like Germany and France are not included in the program yet and “only Canada, Mexico, South Korea and the Netherlands currently enjoy the benefit, although pilot programs could expand it to a handful of others.” A program for Israeli passengers was put forth last May, but has not been implemented, reports IPT.

In a joint statement announcing the expansion of the program, DHS and the Saudi Ministry of the Interior (MOI) stated, “The trusted traveler programs will facilitate trade and travel between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America and will help authorities from MOI and DHS more effectively identify potential threats to keep their borders and countries secure.”

However, lawmakers want to know how DHS will work with Saudi officials to “verify information provided by Global Entry applicants and keep the Homeland Secure.”

The letter to Secretary Napolitano states:

Of the 19 individuals who hijacked American planes on September 11, 2001 – 15 were from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. More recently, following the plot to blow up an international flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, the Department saw fit to increase the scrutiny of the passengers from countries like Saudi Arabia. This must be a factor in determining who to admit into the Global Entry Program.

According to IPT, the Global Entry agreement comes three years after U.S. officials temporarily placed Saudi Arabia “on a list of 14 countries whose travelers would face enhanced scrutiny when entering the United States.”  However, the KSA responded with outrage and demanded to be removed from the list:

A cable sent from the American embassy to the State Department that was published by Wikileaks reported that Saudi government officials expressed “shock to be included on the list” and threatened to “to re-evaluate areas of cooperation, including counter-terrorism cooperation” if it was not rescinded.

The policy was dropped three months later, replaced with a new program designed to use threat assessments and intelligence of traveler’s behavioral traits and travel patterns.

GOP lawmakers want DHS to explain how CBP and DHS decided to give Global Entry membership to the KSA. They also want assurances from DHS that travelers from nations added to the program will receive appropriate vetting.  Lawmakers also want assurances the program cannot be abused “by terrorist operatives in high-risk countries.” 

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