Release Date: September 29, 2008
Secretary Chertoff: Well, thank you for attending this auspicious occasion. Joining me of course is the Minister of the Interior of Estonia, Minister Pihl, and the Minister of Justice, Minister Lang, and Matt Friedrich, who is the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice.
I want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation to our Estonian colleagues for working with us to enable us to expand the Visa Waiver Program, which, as you know, is beneficial to citizens, both in Europe and in the United States as we increasingly promote travel and trade among friendly countries. As you will recall, we saw the Memorandum of Understanding this past March in Tallinn, and by signing the prevention in combating serious crime agreements that we have signed today, we are taking another critical step toward reaching our goal of admitting Estonia into our expanded and more secure Visa Waiver Program.
The agreement that we signed today will reciprocally enable law enforcement officers, both in Estonia and in the United States, to investigate crime more quickly and efficiently, will help us prevent terrorists and criminals from traveling, but will also make it easier for innocent citizens to travel to our respective countries. This idea of sharing information, of course, is not a new concept.
Sharing law enforcement information is a fundamental tool that we used to combat trans-national crime and to prevent terrorism. And I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge a very similar agreement we recently reached with the Republic of Germany.
In fact, EU member states among themselves share a similar agreement, the Prüm Convention, which broadens and deepens security cooperation among EU countries, and with an agreement such as what we signed today we are expanding the network of cooperation in information sharing around the globe, which of course is a positive development for those who want to enforce the law and protect security and safety of all of our citizens.
Before I ask the Minister of Interior to speak, I want to stress that we remain committed to completing our path to VWP, visa waiver program expansion, which is made possible by two basic things: First, our partner countries overseas have to do their part as Estonia is currently doing and has taken another step in doing today. And the U.S. has to do its part by continuing to implement our Electronic System of Travel Authorization and completing our other Visa Waiver Program assessments. All of this is proceeding on track.
We are on the way to meeting our goals within the next weeks; and, through the kind of cooperation we’ve seen in today’s signing, we have a very, very hopeful and optimistic view that we’ll be welcoming Estonians into a Visa Waiver Program this year. And before the year is over we’ll see the first Estonians come into the U.S. without visas. This is a very positive development.
And, may I conclude before I turn it over to the Minister of Interior by saying I hope the people of Estonia understand this is very much of a concrete commitment on the part of America to stand with Estonia in friendship and in mutual support, and as very strong allies and partners in all areas, whether it be security or business. We view the admission of Estonia to the Visa Waiver Program when the process is completed to be something that will be a positive thing for both of our countries and a major step forward in a very, very important relationship that we Americans basically put a value on. Thank you.
Minister Pihl: I want to thank you today. I want to thank Assistant Secretary, ladies and gentlemen. We are truly delighted by assigning this agreement for cooperation between Estonia and governments in preventing serious crime, which makes American law enforcement authorities and the guarantee of our security even more effective. This is an extremely important, necessary measure in today’s risk-filled world where international terrorism, trans-national crime, and illegal immigration threaten the stability of countries and peoples’ everyday life, while undermining the principal foundation of democratic society.
By increasing our capabilities and competence and by actively cooperating we can more adequately respond to these threats. On the other hand, to conclude, an agreement to help us to achieve objectives that many dreamed of since Estonia restored its independence and which we have been making towards the middle of ‘90s, last century, this objective is visa-free travel to the United States, a country which we share relationships of good cooperation and mutual understanding.
Estonia and U.S.A. have a strong partnership. We share values based on respective democracy, freedom and human rights. Ever since they, the United States, did not let the Soviet occupation of Estonia, which gave us hope and encouragement to restore our country’s independence. Effectively combating crime and illegal immigration allows us to protect democracy and increase the freedom of movement by compensating the states, which agrees its open borders, in a more open world. The balance between freedom and security measures is a guarantee of democracy. Thank you.
Acting Assistant Attorney General Friedrich: Let me simply say on behalf of the Department of Justice that I am honored to be here to sign this bilateral agreement between our countries, which is important both for visa waiver purposes, and also in its own right.
I want to thank the Ministers of Interior from Estonia and the Minister of Justice for their resolve and their commitment and seeing this agreement through. Today’s agreement is good news, both for Americans and for Estonians, for many reasons. First, this agreement gives our countries important new tools to fight terrorism and transnational crimes. It’s about giving cops the ability to share data with other cops. It allows hit/no hit access to each other’s criminal fingerprint databases, thereby advancing criminal investigations while protecting personal privacy. It also provides a mechanism for sharing information about criminals and known and suspected terrorists.
Finally, it symbolizes our joint resolve to fight international crime and terrorism. Thank you.
Minister Lang: Honorable Secretary, Mr. Assistant Secretary, on behalf of the Estonian Ministry of Justice it’s an honor to be here and an honor to sign an agreement between the United States and the Republic of Estonia.
Our legal basis for our relations date back to 1924 when we first had an agreement of legal assistance between the countries, and I am delighted that today we managed to sign another agreement with the United States with whom we share the same values and the same prospectus in the globalizing world. So thank you very much.
Secretary Chertoff: Now, we’ll be happy to take some questions. If you tell us to whom you want to direct the questions, we will respond.
Question: Brian Beary from EuroPolitics. I wanted to ask yourself a question about the Visa Waiver Program generally. Could you just talk us through the timetable in the next couple of months, what’s going to happen, because I notice President Bush today spoke about Lithuania coming in in mid-October, and you’re saying the end of the year. Could you just talk us through the various steps? How many countries will actually be covered?
Secretary Chertoff: Sure. There are a number of steps to admission to the program. One of the steps, of course, we completed with Estonia today, which is the signing of this agreement on criminal information sharing. We are well along the way of completing most of these steps with a number of other countries, and we expect that they will be completed, anticipate they will be completed within a matter of weeks.
So, obviously, when I say by the end of the year, I’m making a prediction. I’m not making a guarantee, but it’s a prediction which I have a lot of confidence. We would again anticipate assuming all the necessary steps are completed, that sometime this autumn we will be able to announce those countries that will be in the first wave of admission, and then there will be a few weeks of lead time, because people will need to make arrangements to make sure they’ve registered in our on-line,
Electronic System of Travel Authorization.
But, assuming all goes as we anticipate, that would certainly allow before the end of the year that travelers from countries such as Estonia would be able to begin to enjoy the benefits of visa-free travel. I don’t want to be precise, because there are some additional steps. So, until it’s over, it’s not over. But I think we are very optimistic that we are going to be able to complete what needs to be completed within a matter of weeks.
Question: Bob Simon, Mr. Secretary.
Something else which may be of interest to Estonia, as you know, sir, a foreigner married to an American citizen in a bona fide marriage has a right to become a U.S. permanent resident. So why is your department refusing U.S. residency to widows who are in legitimate marriages when their American spouse died?
Secretary Chertoff: You know, it’s hard for me to analyze in the abstract a question to which there are particular facts. The law about the admissibility of people to permanent residence is the law. The lawyers interpret it, and we follow it based on what the lawyers tell us. So since I can’t read your mind about the particular and the particular facts and circumstances, I can’t give you an answer other than the generic answer that we apply the law the way it’s written. And based on that we make a determination about whether someone is admissible or inadmissible.
Question: Four courts, sir, have ruled in favor of the widows, and the courts appeal the cases every time. I mean your department there’s some cases.
Secretary Chertoff: Well, and that’s exactly the way the process works, Bob. We appeal cases until we’ve exhausted the system to make a judgment, get a final judgment that is binding across the country that reflects the final resolution of the court system. That’s true of any legal issue. That’s how we resolve legal issues.
Obviously, we have a responsibility to the citizens of this country to make sure that citizenship is made available only to those people who legally qualify. And so if there’s any doubt or question of interpretation, I think it’s our obligation. I take it up as far as the courts will allow us to get a final resolution.
At the end of that process, if someone wants to change the law, because they don’t like the way it was interpreted, then of course Congress is free to do that. So I think what you’re seeing is a normal part of responsible lawyering, if I may say so, with respect to a benefit, which of course is of keen interest to the applicants, but also keen interest to Americans who want to make sure that the law is followed with respect to the award of permanent residency and citizenship.
Question: We’re only talking about 150 widows or so.
Secretary Chertoff: You know, Bob, it’s very hard for me to give a general discussion of a number of individual cases. Our obligation is to apply the law the way we fairly and honestly read it. It’s not a question of our personal sympathies, whether we think it would be nice to give somebody a break or a benefit. It’s a question of living up to our obligation to execute the laws the way they are written.
If there is an honest belief that the law does not allow us to confer a benefit, as much as it might make us happy personally to be able to be generous, it would be a violation of our oath of office to do this. And that’s true whether it’s 100, 1,000, or 10,000. So all I can tell you is without getting specific cases and arguing the facts and circumstances that I think the lawyer’s have an obligation to pursue the matter through the system until we get a final resolution from the courts. And then, if there’s a sense that this is somehow unfair or it’s a bad outcome from a kind of a policy standpoint, then the place to turn to was to get Congress to change the law.
The Moderator: We have time for two more questions.
Question: Hi. I’m Penny Starwood, CNS News. I wanted to ask, how, if you could be more specific on how expanding this program will make us safer, the U.S. safer, in other countries? And is there any danger in this expanding the people who aren’t good will fall through the cracks in a way that happened with visas? Well, not with visas, but is there a way of more dangerous people slipping through the cracks with this expansion?
Secretary Chertoff: Well, this is going to be better. It’s going to increase securities for both countries as it will for all the countries who participate in similar agreements, because it’s going to allow us to exchange information about whether people who are coming into our respective countries are criminals, whether they’ve been convicted of criminal offenses.
That’s only going to be a good thing, and it’s going to increase the likelihood that we were able to detect somebody who is crossing the border who is a danger to either country. From our standpoint as Americans, the Electronic System of Travel Authorization enables us to see the information about seeking to come to the U.S., which we currently receive only when they arrive, will get it earlier. And that gives us more time to evaluate it and make sure that we can make a judgment about whether this person ought to be admitted. It also by the way gives the traveler early notice if there’s going to be a problem. So they don’t come to the airport in the U.S. and get told at that point you have to go back.
So information sharing in this domain, as in almost all domains, is generally the key to better security and better enforcement, because we have more time and more data on which to make good judgments.
Question: Yes, Negar Alia, Estonian Television. Is there any additional Congressional approval for this expansion? There are people on the Hill who are critical, the Congressional Accounting Office of the ESTA Program. Is it possible the program could be delayed before?
Secretary Chertoff: Well, whenever I get a question that begins, is it possible, you know, that’s a dangerous question. But I don’t say any reasonable possibility at this juncture that the program will be derailed. It’s been funded by Congress. It will be authorized to do it. We have so far met all of the requirements of the law that was passed, that was a pre-condition to admitting countries, assuming the final requirements are met. And I am optimistic that they will be met over the next few weeks.
My expectation is that a number of countries will be admitted, because they’re poised to become qualified, and then as we move along further other countries presumably and hopefully will qualify as well.
The Moderator: Last question?
Question: Hi. I’m Caitlin Webber from Congressional Quarterly. My question is actually for the Interior Minister.
Question: Do you feel confident that Estonian citizens know that under the new Visa Waiver Program that even though they won’t need a visa, they’ll still need to register on-line before they travel. And how have you gotten word about that requirement out?
Minister Pihl: Secretary said, it’s always better to know in advance. I will welcome here or not and if you are making sense, an attorney for registration. So I mean you are home behind your computer and you have an answer. I will welcome, or you have some problems, and you can go in United States Embassy to handle your problems that you might have. It’s more secure. Or travel is necessary to come to the airport and go back on the same plane. I think it’s a better way to handle this.
Secretary Chertoff: Let me also add, we’re trying very hard, and actually this press conference is part of that process to communicate to the public in Europe and in other places that are potentially coming within the program about the program. It is getting a certain amount of publicity in Europe.
We hope this will create more publicity. We are going to continue to encourage the travel industry and the airline industry to publicize exactly what is required. It’s a very simple process. I’ve actually seen it work myself. And we’ve had the experience with other similar programs that we have rolled out of an international nature that you’d be surprised how attuned people are to getting that message.
We have typically found very high compliance rates. But I certainly want to encourage the airlines, when people book flights coming into the U.S. to inquire have people done the on-line registration. It’s a very fast process and not very complicated; and, in fact, the travel agents themselves can assist. So we’ve made it as easy as possible, but we will continue to beat the drum on the message between now and the time that we begin admitting people later this year.
The Moderator: Thank you very much.
Remarks by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on an Agreement with the Republic of Estonia to Prevent and Combat Serious Crime