US demands nations provide more traveller data or face sanctions

Travelers walk through International Terminal Four at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, on June 30 2017.
Travelers walk through International Terminal Four at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, New York, on June 30 2017. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The US State Department will require all nations to provide extensive data to help it vet visa applicants and determine whether a traveller poses a terrorist threat, according to a cable obtained by Reuters.

Countries that fail to comply with the new protocols or take steps to do so within 50 days could face travel sanctions.

The cable, sent to all US diplomatic posts on Wednesday (July 12), is a summary of a worldwide review of vetting procedures that was required under Trump's revised March 6 executive order that banned US travel by most citizens from six predominantly Muslim countries.

The memo lays out a series of standards the US will require of other countries, including that they issue, or have active plans to issue, electronic passports and regularly report lost and stolen passports to Interpol.

It also directs nations to provide "any other identity information" requested by Washington for US visa applicants, including biometric or biographic details.

The cable sets out requirements for countries to provide data on individuals it knows or has grounds to believe are terrorists as well as criminal record information.

Further, countries are asked not to block the transfer of information about US-bound travellers to the US government and not to designate people for travel watchlists based solely on their political or religious beliefs.

"This is the first time that the US Government is setting standards for the information that is required from all countries specifically in support of immigration and traveller vetting," the cable said.

The cable lays out risk factors the US government will consider when evaluating a country. Some of these are controversial and could be difficult for countries to prove to US satisfaction, including ensuring "that they are not and do not have the potential to become a terrorist safe haven."

Countries are also expected to agree to take back citizens ordered removed from the US.

If they do not provide the information requested, or come up with an adequate plan to do so, countries could end up on a list to be submitted within 50 days to Trump for possible sanction, including barring "designated categories" of their citizens from entering the US.

The new requirements are the latest in a series of steps the Trump administration says it is taking to better protect the US from terrorist attack.

The most controversial of these are two executive orders, challenged in federal court, which impose a temporary ban on travel to the United States for most citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

While the orders were initially blocked from being enforced, the Supreme Court on June 26 allowed the ban to go into effect for people from the six nations with no strong ties to the United States.

The cable requires countries to act quickly. "Failure to provide this information in a timely manner will require us to assume your country does not meet the standards," the cable said, stressing that the US would work with foreign nations to assess if they meet the standards and, if not, come up with a plan to help them do so.

The cable asks that US diplomats "underscore that while it is not our goal to impose a ban on immigration benefits, including visas, for citizens of any country, these standards are designed to mitigate risk, and failure to make progress could lead to security measures by the USG, including a presidential proclamation that would prohibit the entry of certain categories of foreign nationals of non-compliant countries."

The cable says the US government has made a preliminary determination that some countries do not meet the new standards and that others are "at risk" of not meeting them. It does not name these, listing them in a separate, classified cable.

The State Department declined comment on the cable, saying it would not discuss internal communications. "The US government's national security screening and vetting procedures for visitors are constantly reviewed and refined to improve security and more effectively identify individuals who could pose a threat to the United States," said a US State Department official on condition of anonymity. "We welcome every opportunity to continue to review and improve our systems and procedures," the official added.