Under the soaring roof of Washington's Dulles International Airport last week, friends and loved ones did what they always do at airports: They waited. Each time the doors swung open, disgorging new passengers into the arrivals hall, eager families leaned forward in search of weary, familiar faces just in from their trans-Atlantic flights. One man held a single, peach-colored rose. A "Welcome Home" balloon hovered in mid-air over a waiting family.
Across the tarmac, in the cavernous immigration area of the international terminal, the U.S. government offered a welcome of its own: Press your right index finger on the electronic pad. Now your left. Look at the camera. Thank you.
At Dulles and more than 100 other airports around the country, loved ones would have to wait just a minute longer. First, there was the hunt for terrorists to deal with.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Congress in late 2001 ordered new, high-tech screening procedures to keep terrorists from slipping into the country unnoticed. On Jan. 5, after months of testing and design, those procedures finally were rolled out nationwide. Known as the United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT, the program calls for digital fingerprints and photographs of some 15 million travelers arriving in the United States each year.
Critics were quick to condemn the new policy. Timothy Edgar of the ACLU called the US-VISIT program "a large privacy violation waiting to happen, with records garnered under the program likely retained even after you've become a citizen, and a provision permitting their sharing with foreign governments.
"Nobody is arguing with the principle of monitoring who enters and exits the country, but there are ways to do it, and ways not to do it," Mr. Edgar said. "So far, we haven't even come up with an effective system, let alone one that doesn't treat every Arab and Muslim, even every visitor, as a potential terrorist."
At Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport on the first day of the new system, Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge addressed privacy concerns: "Legitimate travelers who fall into America's open arms should know that they have nothing to fear in this new system. Information gathered will be kept strictly to authorized officials on a need-to-know basis and will be governed by the Privacy Act at all times. However, US-VISIT will not be kind to those who think that privacy can hide their hate or their intention to harm."
Aside from the predictable hand-wringing of the ACLU-after all, foreign tourists don't appear to be covered by the constitutional right to privacy discovered by the Supreme Court in 1972-a bigger concern among many critics is that US-VISIT simply has too many holes to be effective in stopping terrorists. For instance, although the program is already in place at 115 airports and 14 seaports across the country, millions of visitors continue to pour across America's land borders without the high-tech checks.
In addition, passport holders from 27 countries-including much of Europe, Canada, and Australia-are exempt from the fingerprint requirements altogether. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials say those countries have adequate security procedures in place, but history proves that hostile parties can come from friendly nations. Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged co-conspirator in the Sept. 11 plot, got into this country on a French passport. And Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who attempted to bring down an Air France jet en route to Miami, was traveling with a British passport.
Still, TSA officials insist, the US-VISIT program has already proven its potential, even in limited tests. A dry run in Atlanta late last year nabbed 21 people on the FBI's watch list for crimes such as drug trafficking, rape, and visa fraud. And a Christmastime test in Miami and Fort Lauderdale turned up five visitors attempting to enter the country with false identities.
Given the high stakes-and the high tech-few visitors seemed overly offended by the extra step in the immigration procedure. "It's very quick. I think it's excellent," said Navneet Agarwal as he arrived in Washington from India. "You just have to put out your fingers and that's it."
Asif Latif, a Pakistani businessman who has traveled to the United States at least once a year for the past 30 years, said his trip through immigration was the longest he had ever experienced-but it wasn't because of the new technology. "The fingerprinting and photograph took only 30 seconds. The question-and-answer session was longer. It took about 10 minutes.... I know it's because I'm from Pakistan," he added. Still, he didn't blame immigration officials for the extra security. "It's no problem," he concluded.
Indeed, there were remarkably few problems with the fingerprinting procedures nationwide, despite dire warnings of long delays as Immigration and Naturalization Service processors learned to use the machines. Most visitors stood in line for no more than an extra minute, and Mr. Ridge vowed the wait time would shrink to 15 or 20 seconds once personnel had gotten a few days' practice.
But if tourists seemed generally pleased with the efficiency of the procedure, not all foreign governments were quite so upbeat. A Brazilian federal judge, furious over the new fingerprinting requirement, ordered that American visitors landing in his country be subjected to the same treatment starting on Jan. 1-but without the high-tech conveniences. Manual fingerprinting with black ink caused delays of more than nine hours at Rio de Janeiro's international airport.
The mayor of Rio, worried about the impact on his city's vital tourism sector, said he would sue for an end to the fingerprinting policy. "It is the country that loses because of this infantile anti-American policy," Mayor Cesar Maia told reporters.
The U.S. State Department agreed. Spokesman Richard Boucher complained that the policy was "quickly instituted [and] not well prepared. We have told the Brazilians that we think that these are measures that provide tremendous inconvenience to travelers and that they need to be changed."
In a world of heightened terror alerts, however, inconvenience seemed to become the norm for international travel. Terrorist "chatter" picked up by U.S. intelligence sources led to increased security for inbound flights from Mexico, France, and Great Britain. Even after the high-risk holiday season passed without incident, officials continued their scrutiny, leading to long delays and canceled flights.
Take the plight of British Airways Flight 223, for example. On Jan. 6 it was delayed two hours because of security screening. The previous three days saw delays of 3-1/2 hours. For two days before that, it was canceled entirely, and on Dec. 31-almost a week earlier-the flight was escorted into Washington's Dulles International Airport by U.S. fighter jets.
Although flights operated by British Airways, Air France, and AeroMexico came under perhaps the closest scrutiny, U.S.-based carriers were hardly immune. A Cincinnati-bound Delta Airlines flight was delayed in Paris on Jan. 6 when screeners discovered suspicious wires in a passenger's coat. The 22-year-old Saudi woman was removed from the flight and her coat checked by a bomb team, which concluded the wires were merely part of a heating system similar to an electric blanket.
Even without the suspect coat, the Delta flight was quarantined behind a barbed-wire fence about a half-mile from the main airport terminal upon its arrival in Cincinnati. Bomb-sniffing dogs searched the plane, and all 181 passengers, along with their luggage, were screened a second time before they were allowed to leave the aircraft.
TSA officials warn there's no end in sight to the increased security. Despite scattered criticism, the fingerprinting policy is here to stay, and heightened screening procedures for U.S.-bound flights will likely continue even after the general threat level is lowered from orange to yellow.
Later this year, officials promise, fingerprinting will be implemented at land border crossings, and electronic passport controls coming in October should help to close loopholes for European visitors. Furthermore, automated departure kiosks now being tested in Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale will signal the INS when a visitor has overstayed his or her visa, adding yet another layer of protection.
Meantime, the criticism-and the inconveniences-will continue. To that U.S. officials respond simply: It beats the alternative.
-with reporting from Priya Abraham