Lawmakers question 'trusted' status for Saudi travelers
Republican Homeland Security leaders are knocking the Homeland Security Department’s decision to extend a trusted traveler program to Saudi Arabia before countries like the United Kingdom and France.
Secretary Janet Napolitano reached an agreement in January with a top Saudi official to begin work on granting Global Entry status to Saudi Arabian citizens, allowing “pre-approved, low-risk travelers” to pass through customs more quickly in the United States at major U.S. airports.
Napolitano said the meeting with Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef reflected a “commitment to more effectively secure our two countries against evolving threats while facilitating legitimate trade and travel.”
But House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) and six of his subcommittee leaders wrote in a letter to Napolitano that despite friendly ties between the two nations, the new status presents “potential risks.” They also questioned why Saudi Arabia was selected for Global Entry membership “before other trusted allies.”
“Of the 19 individuals who hijacked American planes on September 11, 2001 — 15 were from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Republican lawmakers wrote. “More recently, following the plot to blow up an international flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, the Department saw fit to increase the scrutiny of passengers from countries like Saudi Arabia. This must be a factor in determining who to admit into the Global Entry Program.
“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,” they added.
A DHS official said that the initial agreement was struck with the understanding that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will come together on background checks and red flags that would disqualify participants from the program.
The official stressed that Customs will gather a multitude of information from Global Entry applicants including “criminal history, customs violations, immigration violations, agriculture violations, investigatory records and terrorist indices.” Applicants also need to conduct in-person interviews with Customs officers and get finger printing done for background checks.
Global Entry is relatively new, having been permanently established in March 2012 after a test run as a pilot program. According to the DHS website, it is open to citizens from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands and South Korea. The U.S. has also reached a deal with Israel on the program.