WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security officials are considering requiring European travelers to keep their fingerprints on file with the United States if they want to visit the country without a visa.
The proposal is one of a series of measures being developed by the Homeland Security policy office in response to a growing fear that terrorism may originate in Western Europe rather than the Middle East. Requiring Europeans to register their fingerprints would minimize the chances of passport fraud, which security specialists believe is a growing danger.
''We're moving to an area where international travelers' fingerprints are going to be part of their identifier," said Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Homeland Security.
Baker, whose office develops long-term homeland security policies, said a decision is not imminent on the proposal to require Europeans to register their fingerprints. But he is considering it as a way to protect against terrorists with European backgrounds.
Currently, most of Europe is exempt from the rule that foreign visitors obtain a visa, which requires undergoing a background check, fingerprinting, and a face-to-face interview. Originally designed to block illegal immigration, the US visa system makes an exception for visitors from 27 affluent countries, mostly in Western Europe.
As security concerns have shifted to terrorism, however, the risk from Europe has grown because of its large and poorly integrated Muslim population. This past year, Islamist extremists born in England bombed London's subway system, a Belgian woman who converted to Islam committed a suicide bombing in Iraq, and angry Muslim youths rioted across France for weeks.
''Our visa waiver program was built on the assumption that the biggest worry we have about people who come here on tourist visa is that they may stay and take jobs, so the assumption was, for wealthy countries, we could afford to do without the visa process," Baker said. ''The problem is, that's not the worst thing people can do now, and Al Qaeda has made no secret of its hope that it can recruit people who are Western."
Indeed, some critics argued that the United States should require all Europeans to obtain visas to screen out potential terrorists. Visa officials can reject applicants who arouse suspicions during an interview, even if their papers are in order.
''Today, there are about 15 million Muslims that now inhabit European countries," said Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, at a 2004 House hearing on the program. ''How exactly are we safer by not having a visa program in place for countries that have huge populations of people that we are concerned about?"
But most security specialists believe the United States cannot force all Europeans to get visas. Two-thirds of US overseas visitors come from visa waiver countries -- more than 10 million travelers a year. It would cost far too much to interview each traveler, specialists say, and it would discourage tourism, hurting the US economy and straining diplomatic relations.
''An enormous amount of resources go into visa processing, and we shouldn't be diverting those from [higher-risk countries] where we really need them," said Jim Carafano, a homeland security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Instead, Homeland Security officials are seeking ways to better verify the identity of visitors without taking the dramatic step of making Europeans come to a US consulate for an interview.
The United States has already started requiring Europeans to provide an electronic fingerprint when they enter and leave from American airports. Last week, Homeland Security announced it had completed installing the systems at 154 land-border ports of entry as well.
The fingerprint system, specialists say, will help keep better track of visitors. But it won't help catch a terrorist from Europe who is traveling on a forged or stolen passport, using a fake name that doesn't show up on any watchlist.
Baker said requiring Europeans to register their fingerprints ahead of travel would reduce identity fraud because officials could match the fingerprint taken at the border against the database. Officials are still working out how to collect the European fingerprints, but two possible collection points would be local police stations or well-regulated private businesses, Baker said.
Any new fingerprint policy would have to be negotiated with European countries, where privacy advocates have already raised concerns about US data collection. But Baker said he is optimistic.
''The interest in not giving fingerprints in advance, since we're going to get them eventually [at the border], strikes me as a lot smaller than if the US would never get them," he said.
Homeland Security officials said European countries must also do more to keep track of identifying numbers associated with stolen passports -- and to quickly let the United States know about them -- if they want to have their citizens keep traveling to the United States without a visa.
''A lot of countries have delegated passport issuing authority to local offices, so there are a lot of blank passports in a lot of countries which can be stolen," Baker said. ''If you steal a blank one and have the technology to print it up, it's very hard to know that it's a forgery. That makes it quite difficult to catch unless you have a good system for reporting the loss of blank passports."
Baker declined to comment about any specific country. But nearly 10,000 blank passports were stolen in France in February 2004, and the United States wasn't warned to watch out for the passport numbers for two months, according to news reports at the time. Another administration official said the United States has been putting intense pressure on Germany, where passports are issued by local offices that take too long to log stolen passport numbers in central databases, the official said.
Under a new law, Homeland Security must review each European country's passport security every two years, and it can revoke a nation's visa waiver privileges. The United States has not yet taken the step of requiring visas, but has attempted to crack down in other ways. For example, the United States recently began requiring Europeans' passports to have digital photographs. France and Italy missed the deadline to complete the upgrade, and the United States is now refusing to admit their citizens without a visa if they have nondigital passports issued after October 2005. US figures show that more than 10,000 French and Italian travelers applied for visas in the past two months.
Robert Leiken, a national security specialist at the Nixon Center, a nonpartisan think tank, said another way to reduce passport fraud would be to require Europeans to enter their passport numbers at the time they book tickets, so that the United States has more time to screen them. Baker said, ''We're moving in that direction."
Baker's predecessor as head of policy for Homeland Security, Stewart Verdery, who left the government nine months ago, said officials have long hoped to get advance notice of passport numbers. But he cautioned that an overly aggressive push for more personal data could provoke a backlash.
Verdery negotiated a treaty with the EU Commission giving the United States advance access to the names and birth dates of Europeans booking airline tickets, but privacy advocates in the European Parliament are trying to overturn the agreement in court.
''The EU has a different mindset about turning over personal information," Verdery said. ''It will serve the US well to work as best as we can with the European countries to minimize surprises, and to come up with things as narrowly tailored as possible, to comply with the European point of view."