Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 5, 2006

GAO looks at the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative

Filed under: Border Security — by Christian Beckner on June 5, 2006

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report last week entitled “Observations on Efforts to Implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative on the U.S. Border with Canada.” It provides a very clearly-written overview of the challenges that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State face in trying to meet the January 1, 2008 deadline for compliance with the WHTI-provisions of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act.

The report identifies challenges in five key areas:

  • Making a decision about what documents individuals will need when they enter the United States;
  • Resolving technical and programmatic issues related to PASS cards;
  • Proceeding through the rule-making process;
  • Carrying out a cost-benefit study; and
  • Managing implementation of the program.

The report goes on to explain the challenges in these areas in detail, and provides a useful comparison of the various identification-related proposals for WHTI compliance (e.g. PASS cards, passports, daypasses, other border crossing cards). The report suggests that DHS and State are at risk of missing the mandate deadlines, and concludes with these words of warning:

DHS and State have taken some steps to carry out the Travel Initiative. However, they have a long way to go to implement their proposed plans, and the time to get the job done is slipping by. The many challenges that they face mirror the complexities and the nuances involved in developing a border security program that is a major cultural change in the way that individuals and commerce cross the U.S.-Canadian border. There are no easy alternatives to a passport or a PASS card that meet the legal requirement to show identity and citizenship. Alternative programs or documents, such as frequent traveler programs and driver’s licenses with enhanced security features, have their own set of challenges, and using them in lieu of a passport will not easily resolve the management issues faced by DHS and State. These conditions, coupled with the significant cross-border commerce and tourism, heighten the need to take care in planning, evaluating, testing, and implementing an approach that ultimately improves security at the northern border without adversely affecting commerce and tourism in a significant way. Attempting to address these challenges under what appears to be an ambitious schedule adds uncertainty and risk.

State and DHS should heed these words of warning, and work to address the specific challenges that it describes. They should also look at scrapping the self-imposed deadline of January 1, 2007 for air- and/or sea-based entry, and focus instead on meeting the January 1, 2008 deadline for all modes. It’s possible that Congress will extend the deadline, but I wouldn’t count on it, at least during the 109th Congress, nor would that solve the real problem – which is the fact that prohibitively-expensive border ID’s are going to deter people from traveling, which will create a negative impact on the U.S. and Canadian economies. State and DHS need to find ways to make the planned PASS cards more affordable, by driving down their component costs and/or subsidizing them via appropriated funds.

Update (6/7): Rep. McHugh (R-NY) and Rep. Slaughter (D-NY), the two members of Congress who requested the GAO report, have unveiled legislation that addresses their concerns about WHTI – the Protecting American Commerce and Travel Act (PACT Act).

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