Trusted-Travel Status for Country that Produced Most of the 9/11 Hijackers
Lawmakers are livid that the Obama administration quietly added Saudi Arabia to the short list of countries in the Global Entry program to expedite screening for pre-approved travelers deemed to be a low security risk.
Currently, the trusted traveler program is open to U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, Dutch citizens, South Korean citizens and Mexican nationals. Canadians can join through the NEXUS program. Travelers check in at a kiosk where they're either allowed to breeze into the country or are flagged for a normal entry interview.
The Obama administration forged the agreement with the Saudi government in Washington this January, but Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's meeting with Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef largely flew under the radar on Capitol Hill.
“I am proud of the bond between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and today’s meeting marks another major step forward in our partnership,” Napolitano said. “By enhancing collaboration with the Government of Saudi Arabia, we reaffirm our commitment to more effectively secure our two countries against evolving threats while facilitating legitimate trade and travel.”
The agreement allowed for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to begin implementing the program that fast-tracks prescreened travelers through security lines in Saudi Arabia, and "initiate discussions to establish a reciprocal program," according to DHS.
Napolitano and the prince released a joint statement calling the "security and economic prosperity" agreement an "effort to reaffirm the extraordinary bond between [the U.S. and Saudi Arabia] and advance this partnership."
"The trusted traveler programs will facilitate trade and travel between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America and will help authorities from MOI and DHS more effectively identify potential threats to keep their borders and countries secure," the statement continued. "The objective will be to start implementation within the next six months with full operations starting in 2014."
The pair also announced new agreements on cybersecurity, infrastructure protection and maritime security.
Napolitano signed a Global Entry agreement with Israel in May 2012, but it hasn't moved forward to implementation.
Fifteen out of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, were Saudi citizens. The ultraconservative kingdom calls terrorists "deviants" and now runs a generously funded, luxe "rehabilitation" program for extremists that includes Islamic education, a wife and wedding paid for by the government, and a job.
“It’s difficult to understand the administration’s decision-making process to place Saudi Arabia as the next country to receive the status of ‘trusted traveler,'" Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said today. "The administration needs to explain how it came to this decision and what steps it and DHS are taking to ensure our nation’s security will be safeguarded against any potential terrorist attack from those who would seek to take advantage of this upgrade in status. It also needs to explain why it has chosen Saudi Arabia to be ‘rewarded’ with such a status and placed on this list before many of our other, more trusted allies.”
Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, said "several" of her colleagues are up in arms about the agreement and questioned the security protocols that will be used by Saudi Arabian and DHS officials in vetting trusted travelers.
She also noted the administration's brief listing of Saudi Arabia among 14 countries from which travelers would receive extra airport security screening. "This is a stark turnaround that at the very least deserves some answers," Ros-Lehtinen said.
That 2010 order was quickly lifted in the wake of interest groups such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council protesting the inclusion of mostly Muslim countries on the list. It also came a year after the White House complained about observations that Obama made a bowing motion when greeting Saudi King Abdullah.
"The new TSA guidelines deliver a propaganda victory to al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, since they rob targeted groups of people from their civil liberties based on their ethnicity and country of origin," said MPAC Government Liaison Alejandro Beutel in January 2010. "Call it whatever you want, but this is religious and ethnic profiling at its worst."
The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), along with all of the subcommittee chairmen, protested the Global Entry designation in a letter to Napolitano last week.
"Despite our longstanding relationship with the Kingdom, there are potential risks in opening this program to Saudi Arabia that must be considered," McCaul wrote along with Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.), Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), Candice Miller (R-Mich.), and Susan Brooks (R-Ind.).
"As members of the House Committee on Homeland Security, we seek assurances from the Department that passengers from countries added to the program will receive the appropriate screening." That includes a request for explanations on why DHS decided to extend the agreement to the Saudis in the first place and how they'll work with Saudi authorities to screen passengers.
"This Committee is supportive of the Department's efforts to expand trade and increase travel to the United States," the lawmakers wrote. "However, we remain vigilant for vulnerabilities that our enemies can exploit to gain access to the Homeland. Expanding Global Entry to high-risk countries may represent such a risk."
Ros-Lehtinen singled out details yet to be learned as especially troubling.
“This is an administration that has consistently overpromised and under delivered on transparency," Ros-Lehtinen said. "For an administration that claims that transparency is one of its top priorities, this is a perfect opportunity for it to show the American people how it came to this decision, and what it will do to ensure that our national security is its utmost concern.”