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U.S. puts off tough passport standards

Instead of fingerprints and iris scans, visitors from 27 countries need tamperproof digitized photos by Oct. 26.

Associated Press
Published June 15, 2005

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is putting off plans that could have required visitors from friendly nations to show passports with fingerprint and iris scan information by this fall.

Instead, foreigners from 27 countries currently not required to apply for U.S. visas will only need to carry passports with tamperproof digitized photos by Oct. 26, administration and congressional officials said Tuesday.

European nations applauded the decision shelving the stricter passport standards, which will help the visa-waiver counties comply with laws tightening U.S. borders after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The countries failed to meet an October 2004 deadline requiring passports with extensive biometric information, and many were expected to miss it again this year.

However, the Homeland Security Department will require passports to include an embedded chip to hold future biometric information such as fingerprints and iris scans as early as next year.

The new standards, which represent a step back from what the United States initially envisioned for biometric passports, could be announced as early as today, when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff visits Sheffield, England. In a speech last month in Brussels, Chertoff affirmed Homeland Security's commitment to biometrics as a high-tech approach to security screening "compatible on both sides of the Atlantic."

The expanded biometric proposals were controversial among the visa-waiver nations - mostly from Europe - that balked at additional costs and privacy concerns. They also note the United States has not agreed to require fingerprint or iris scan data in its own passports.

Ireland, for example, began issuing passports in December with digitized photographs but is not prepared to include the biometric chip, said Joe Hackett, spokesman for the Irish Embassy in Washington.

"We will be ready to move when the time is right," Hackett said. "This new Irish passport may be accepted as meeting the requirements for continued participation in the visa-waiver program - certainly at least in the short term."

He added: "I'm not sure when the American passport itself would be biometric compliant."

A Homeland Security Department official said Tuesday the government felt the new standards were as strict as the U.S. could require at the moment, the Associated Press reported. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the standards have not yet been announced, said Homeland Security still plans to require expanded biometric data in passports in the future.

The new rules allow the 27 nations to comply with a 2002 law requiring them to issue tamperproof passports that carry biometric identification data in line with U.N. passport guidelines.

[Last modified June 15, 2005, 00:44:10]

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