Foreign Travelers Face Closer Scrutiny

Even people who don't need visas will have to submit to background checks.

WASHINGTON, June 2, 2008— -- For foreigners who already endure the long, arduous process of security checks and baggage screenings to travel to the United States, the Visa Waiver Program offered relief to some by allowing them to bypass the tedious process of applying for a U.S. visa.

Soon, however, even people in the program will have to submit personal information for a background check before they can board a flight or ship headed for American soil.

Starting early next year, citizens from countries in the VWP, which allows travelers from certain countries to enter the United States without a visa, will be required to submit their travel plans and personal information before their day of travel, U.S. officials told ABC News, on the condition of anonymity, because the program has not yet been announced.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is expected to make the announcement Tuesday morning.

Officials say the change in the program is needed to protect against individuals who pose a threat to the United States, even though they come from a country that is friendly to America.

"History has shown that it is naïve to assume a traveler from a VWP country automatically constitutes a lesser threat than a visa applicant who has undergone greater scrutiny prior to travel," a U.S. official said, citing as examples British citizen Richard Reid, who attempted to blow up a U.S.-bound flight with a bomb in his shoe, and Zacharias Moussaoui, a French citizen who was the only person convicted for a role in the 9/11 attacks.

Sources say the program is being implemented to comply with a new law, the Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, which was passed by Congress last year.

The 9/11 Commission, which explored the United States' vulnerabilities following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, recommended that passengers be screened against terror watch lists.

"Improved use of 'no-fly' and 'automatic selectee' lists should not be delayed," the commission's report said. "This screening function should be performed by the TSA, and it should utilize the larger set of watchlists maintained by the federal government. Air carriers should be required to supply the information needed to test and implement this new system."

The new program, called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), will launch on Aug. 1 on a voluntary basis, but will become mandatory for travelers from the visa waiver countries on or around Jan. 12, 2009.

Travelers will be required to log onto a Web site to enter their personal and travel information, which will be used to check the traveler's name against terror watch lists. The site will launch in English on Aug. 1 and in other languages on or around Oct. 15.

Travelers who are approved will be able to enter the United States for two years or until their passport expires, whichever comes first.

Travelers are recommended to register on the Web site no less than 72 hours before departure, officials said. Travelers who fail to register could be denied entry to the United States, or at least have their admission delayed..

Several European countries, which make up the bulk of the 27 countries enrolled in the Visa Waiver Program, have complained about the additional measures over fears of what will happen to the data and how long the U.S. government will hold on to it, U.S. officials told ABC News.

The European Union threatened months ago to enact reciprocal requirements, a State Department official said.

Last year, 15 million visitors came to the United States through the Visa Waiver Program. In recent months, eight additional countries have signed agreements to eventually join the program.