WASHINGTON — The Department of Homeland Security is re-evaluating information-sharing agreements with Visa Waiver Program countries to close gaps that might allow people with criminal histories to enter the United States, an administration official told lawmakers Wednesday.
The move comes in the wake of the Jan. 15 hostage crisis in Colleyville, Texas, in which British citizen Malik Faisal Akram held four people hostage at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue. Akram was able to enter the United States without a visa as a citizen of a Visa Waiver Program country, whose citizens can enter the United States without a visa for tourism or business purposes.
Akram had previously been on a British intelligence watchlist as “a subject of interest” and was investigated in 2020 but was no longer considered a threat by 2021, according to the BBC.
Stephanie Dobitsch, deputy undersecretary for intelligence enterprise operations at the Department of Homeland Security, testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that information has surfaced that Akram had “several criminal and potentially terrorist related interactions” with the British government but added that these did not rise to the threshold for passing to the United States.
“To the best of my knowledge, the department certainly was not aware of this information prior to the individual’s travel,” Dobitsch said. “In all of the security checks that had occurred, [they] did not reveal any derogatory information on Akram.”
Because of the incident, she said, “the department is looking to re-evaluate the information-sharing agreements we have under the Visa Waiver Program and looking for opportunities to close any gaps.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said current information-sharing agreements don’t adequately require the sharing of criminal record information with the United States as a condition of participation in the program.
Dobitsch said for Visa Waiver Program countries, it is not common practice to share criminal information on its citizens who are not deemed to be serious criminals.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Texas, expressed interest in looking into changing these information-sharing agreements with Visa Waiver Program countries to obtain basic criminal history information.
Committee Chairman Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., appeared receptive to the suggestion.
“We’ll look into that, Sen. Lankford, because this issue has come up a few times in some of our conversations and we’ll explore it further,” Peters said.
The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., also expressed concern about the information-sharing agreements.
“That’s just extraordinary,” Hawley said of Akram’s entry into the United States. “I would imagine a Google search could probably have turned up much of this information in the U.K. considering his extensive criminal history. … Frankly, it is frightening because if that’s the extent of our vetting, who knows who else is just walking across the border or walking through our airports.”