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World

After Paris Attacks, U.S. Tightens Visa Waiver Program

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama says he will not stop some Syrian refugees from entering the United States. Now we know what the administration will do to increase security after last month's attacks in Paris. The administration says it is changing the processes for a visa waiver program. That's the system under which travelers from Europe and elsewhere reach the U.S. without a visa. Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, is in our studios this morning. Welcome to the program, sir.

JEH JOHNSON: Good morning, Steve, pleasure to be here.

INSKEEP: So why focus on the visa waiver program specifically?

JOHNSON: Well, we're focused on a number of things, including the visa waiver program. And let me just take a very brief second to describe what that is. It is a program that 38 countries are a part of, and if you are a citizen in one of these countries and you want to travel to the U.S., you do not require a visa. There is a vetting process for travel here, but a visa is not part of that process.

INSKEEP: There's an electronic check of your records to see what anybody has on you, OK.

JOHNSON: Something called ESTA - Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

INSKEEP: Right.

JOHNSON: And so we've added security enhancements to the program a year ago and then again in August. And we've also identified places where Congress can help us on this too.

INSKEEP: But you are now going to take a second look - a closer look at people who might be from France, or Germany or Sweden, but they have traveled at some point to a terrorist safe haven. What's a terrorist safe haven?

JOHNSON: Well, it could be a place where - that we identify as some place - an area of concern. And so we think that it's a good idea to specifically call out people who may have traveled to - for example, Iraq, Syria, and evaluate that and, if necessary, deny travel to the U.S.

INSKEEP: Now, that makes sense on the surface. If somebody has been to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria, of course you want to take a second look. But let me ask about the practicalities of that. If someone travels to ISIS-controlled areas of Syria, it's not like they got a visa stamp there. Are you going to know that they went to Syria at some point because they were going into this chaotic place without a lot of records?

JOHNSON: Well, there are ways to crosscheck information that we receive. There are ways to verify information that we receive. But this is a place where asking the specific questions could also reveal some very valuable information just to be able to track somebody's travel.

INSKEEP: Will you, in effect, be saying - because it's hard to - it's hard to get - pin down just what a terrorist safe haven is going to be - will you, in effect, be saying it's going to be harder for people who've traveled to Muslim countries - majority Muslim countries - to get into the United States?

JOHNSON: I wouldn't characterize it that way at all. We want to specifically identify people who have been to places that are terrorist safe havens, and that could be an evolving concept. And we think it's a good idea, in addition to the security enhancements we've already put in place, to work with Congress so that the enhancements have some legislative teeth to them to encourage member countries in the program to do, frankly, a better job of information collection themselves.

INSKEEP: Now, I'm glad you mentioned Congress. We should mention there are some changes that require legislative approval. Lawmakers on the Republican side have indicated they want to make some changes too. But at the same time, the House the other day passed a measure that focuses not on visa waivers but on refugees, making it much harder to admit refugees into the United States. President Obama opposes that bill. Are you trying to head off public pressure to pass that bill by changing the subject to this visa waiver program?

JOHNSON: What we want to do is work with Congress in ways that are effective to improve Homeland Security. The refugee program, as it currently exists, is probably the most thorough, multilayered, time-consuming way for anyone to cross our borders, to come into this country. And a lot of us feel - and I know many members of Congress feel this way too - that we have an obligation to take in people who are largely women, children, families fleeing the very same terrorism and violence that we are so concerned about. And so the refugee program is something that we've done in this country historically and traditionally, and it's part of our values, who we are as Americans.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Secretary Johnson. We had Tony Blinken, the deputy secretary of state, on the program the other day. This was in the wake of the Paris attacks. He talked about the fact that the fight against ISIS is going to be long. They are targeting the U.S. and other interests as they go. He said, quote, "I'd love to be able to say that this" - an attack like Paris - "I'd love to be able to say that this is not going to happen again. But the reality is somewhere, somehow, it probably will." Realistically, in about 30 seconds, what should the public be prepared for in the months and years ahead?

JOHNSON: Realistically, the public should know that we in Homeland Security and law enforcement are working overtime to monitor the threats to protect the public. In a free and open democratic society, we cannot eliminate all risk. I think the public understands that, but we can do everything possible to buy down the risk and protect the American public, and that's what we are doing.

INSKEEP: Secretary Johnson, thanks for coming by this morning.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Jeh Johnson. He is the United States secretary of Homeland Security. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.