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Administration asks for extension on passport deadline

From Mike M. Ahlers

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United States
Colin Powell
Tom Ridge
Department of Homeland Security

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration this week asked Congress to give other countries two more years to issue biometric passports for entry to the United States, saying it is clear that none of the 27 countries entitled to issue the advanced technology passports will be able to meet an October 26 deadline.

The administration earlier had supported the October deadline, saying passports with machine-readable fingerprints or some other form of biometric identifier would help prevent terrorists from entering the country.

But in a letter to House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wisconsin, the administration in recent days said none of the 27 "visa-waiver" countries will produce enough biometric passports by the deadline to meet the needs of travelers.

The looming deadline also presents problems for the U.S. government. In January, Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson told reporters that if countries came up with different biometric technologies, the United States would be hard pressed to install passport readers matching all those technologies at U.S. ports of entry.

State Department officials also have cautioned that if countries couldn't meet the passport deadline, U.S. Embassies overseas would be inundated with travelers applying for visas as an alternative entry permit.

The deluge of requests would require the State Department to hire hundreds of people and perhaps construct additional consular space around the world, a State Department official testified earlier this year.

In their letter to Sensenbrenner, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said there are "good reasons" to extend the deadline until December 2006.

They cited privacy concerns, interoperability issues, questions about the durability of electronic chips and production delays as reasons the governments overseas would not meet the deadline.

If the deadline is not extended, the letter says, the U.S. economy could "suffer gravely" if travelers "vote with their feet" and go elsewhere.

Excluding visitors from Mexico and Canada, the 27 visa-waiver countries account for 68 percent of the people coming into this country. The visa-waiver countries include England, France, Germany and Japan.

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