Passport to America: US orders fingerprint checks of visitors

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The Independent US

The security barrier around America was significantly strengthened yesterday when the Bush administration introduced controversial checks at the country's international airports to guard against terrorist attacks.

In an atmosphere of growing panic, and intelligence reports that Islamic terrorists intend to hijack a passenger plane to use as a missile, foreigners arriving in the United States were for the first time electronically fingerprinted and photographed.

The security procedure will soon become standard at all the US's 115 international airports, 14 major sea ports and 50 land border crossings. The details will be kept on a computer database, available to dozens of US law-enforcement and intelligence agencies.

"Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in our government's commitment to securing our nation while upholding America's ideals about freedom of travel and the spirit of welcoming foreign visitors," said Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security Secretary, at Hartsfield-Jackson international airport in Atlanta. "We also need to make sure we have a record of who comes into the country and when they leave."

The introduction of the "biometric" checks, which instantly drew criticism from civil liberties groups, came as the row in Britain continued over the deployment of armed "sky marshals".

The travel agency Thomas Cook, which flies thousands of holidaymakers across the Atlantic every week, is refusing to co-operate with plans to put armed guards on flights. And pilots leaders are to meet Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, today for emergency talks. The British Air Line Pilots Association (Balpa) believes passengers' lives could be jeopardised by the deployment of guards.

The new checks, known as US-Visit - US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology - will be carried out at immigration points screening the 24 million people who arrive in the country each year. Travellers from 27, largely European, countries which have "visa waiver" agreements with the US are exempt from the checks but even those visitors will have to undergo them if their passports cannot be electronically scanned.

The programme will be extended to 50 land border crossings with Mexico and Canada by the end of the year. Mr Ridge said a trial of the new system at Atlanta's international airport, officials had exposed almost two dozen people trying to enter the country illegally.

As a result of specific threats, several British Airways' flights to Washington have been cancelled in recent days and others have been subjected to unprecedented security measures since officials said they had intelligence that the flight BA223 could be targeted by terrorists. Yesterday, the flight was delayed for a third day running over terrorism fears. On Sunday, the flight was delayed by more than three hours after the US authorities demanded to see a copy of the passenger manifest and check the details of all those travelling. Passengers were told by the pilot that 22 separate US agencies needed to sign off on the list of names and that one agency was delaying the departure.

A spokeswoman for British Airways declined to identify which agency was responsible for the delay. The US Department of Homeland Security also refused to name the agency, claiming that there was an "ongoing investigation". It said additional security measures included the checking of passenger lists. Every passenger on the flight had to undergo at least five separate security checks before they were admitted into the US.

Thomas Cook, which operates 40 flights a week over American airspace to Florida and the Caribbean, said it wanted its captains "in full control of the aircraft at all times". It said: "We have decided if a sky marshal presents himself, we will cancel the flight." Since the Bush administration placed the nation on a "orange" or "high" alert status on 21 December, at least a dozen international flights have been subjected to intense scrutiny. But administration officials admit no arrests had been made in connection with any of the threats and that they are uncertain whether they have succeeded in foiling any terrorist plot.

A US homeland security spokesman, Bill Strassberger, claimed that a Congressional requirement to develop a system to track the entry and exit of immigrants dated to 1996 and that the urgency had increased since the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. "I think people have come to understand that an increase to security is necessary," he said.

But some have questioned the measures as well as the timing of their introduction, as the presidential election campaign gathers pace.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said it was concerned the new checks could be used to discriminate against people. "Contrary to the assertions of the Homeland Security Department, the US-VISIT programme is an addition to - not a substitute for - the notorious special registration program that resulted in the detention and deportation of hundreds of Arab and Muslim men because of their national origin," said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU legislative counsel.

¿ A Saudi Arabian man was charged yesterday with carrying firecrackers on to an aircraft and lying to federal agents about them after landing at Logan international airport in Boston.

Essam Mohammed Almohandis, 33, from Riyadh, was arrested on Saturday after customs agents found three small firecracker-type devices in his hand luggage.