Don’t require airlines to conduct a government function
The Bush administration is proposing that airlines and cruise lines collect biometric fingerprints of departing foreign passengers.
The 9/11 Commission called for a biometric entry-exit system to identify possible terrorists at U.S. borders, but the cost should not be thrust upon the airlines, already reeling from rising fuel costs. The cost of the war in Iraq should not impede the government's ability to protect the nation from terrorism.
The Department of Homeland Security has used the biometric fingerprinting system, called US-VISIT for U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, to identify nearly 100 million people entering the country since 2004. After many delays, Congress created a June 2009 deadline for DHS to implement the program to identify departing foreign visitors. According to the congressional measure, failure to do so would result in delays for South Korea to join the Visa Waiver Program, which would be an untimely blow to Hawaii's tourism expectations.
The exit information is important because it would allow the government to know who neglected to leave the country on time. Some of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers had remained in the United States after their visas expired.
The Bush administration's current proposal would require commercial airlines and cruise-line operators to collect the biometric fingerprints from departing international travelers and send them to DHS. They already supply the government with outgoing travelers' biographical information.
The requirement, announced yesterday, does not specify where airlines must collect the fingerprints -- check-in counters, departure gates or elsewhere. It only directs the airlines to provide them to the government within 24 hours after the visitor leaves the United States.
Government officials estimate that collecting biometric fingerprints will cost airlines and cruise lines $2.7 billion over 10 years, but that is low-balling it. A report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has put the cost at $3 billion, and industry officials say it would be more like $3.5 billion. By comparison, Congress will have allocated more than $600 billion for Iraq operations through the 2008 fiscal year.
"This is ludicrous," Doug Lavin, regional vice president of the International Air Transport Association, told the Washington Post. "We can't afford anything in the billions to support a program that should be a government program." In addition to the cost, Lavin said the process would result in "delayed departures, missed connections here and around the world."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff blames the airlines for trying to obstruct the system. "If we don't have US-VISIT air exit by this time next year," he said, "it will only be because the airline industry killed it."
The real blame, of course, would be the war in Iraq, which has been a major distraction from combatting international terrorists inside our borders.