Modernize passports or stay at home, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says at Aspen Security Forum |

Modernize passports or stay at home, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says at Aspen Security Forum

In this May 25, 2017, file photo, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Kelly says states should not be wary of asking for the federal government’s help to strengthen election systems in light of Russian meddling in last year’s election.
AP file photo

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that within three to six months a policy will take hold prohibiting foreign travelers without modernized passports from entering the United States.

In an interview with NBC justice correspondent Pete Williams, Kelly said a number of countries — not including those under President Donald Trump’s travel ban — produce passports lacking the technology that give him confidence that travelers’ true identities match their paperwork.

“There are many, many countries in the world that have really substandard passports,” Kelly said before a near-capacity crowd at the Greenwald Pavilion on the Aspen Meadows campus. “We need to encourage them — we are going to encourage them — to upgrade their passports to today’s world standard. Chips and things like that, so we can check the information electronically in the passports against who they say they are.”

“So unless you come from a country that has a modern passport, you’re not coming here,” Williams said.

Replied Kelly: “That’s one thing we are requiring, yes.”

The interview with Kelly, a retired Marine general whom Trump appointed Homeland Security secretary Jan. 20, marked the first day of the Security Forum, which runs through Saturday.

It also came the same day the Supreme Court issued a mixed ruling on Trump’s travel ban, which applies to the mostly Muslim countries of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. That ruling, which upheld a lower court’s opinion, deemed that grandparents and other relatives from the affected countries can enter the United States if they have a “bona fide relationship” with someone who lives here. The high court also blocked part of the ruling from a federal judge in Hawaii, effectively making it harder for refugees to come to the U.S. The ruling is temporary. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit is the next stop on the matter.

Kelly said it’s difficult staying up to speed on the various court decisions that have come down the pike since Trump initiated the temporary travel ban Jan. 27. It has gone through numerous legal challenges, with the Supreme Court reinstating its key provisions June 26.

“I’ve lost track of the court rulings, but I have a large number of lawyers who live for the court rulings,” Kelly said, drawing laughter from the audience. “We’re just being very, very careful. I do not want to get crosswise with the courts.”

In the meantime, Kelly said more thorough screening needs to be done on foreign travelers.

“If someone owns a business in — pick a country, Iraq — and their family’s there and they have a sister living in Dearborn, Michigan, and someone wants to come over for Ramadan, that person has ties to Iraq — financial, social, religious, whatever. So the expectation is that person is a safe bet because they’ll go back. But if they’ve got nothing in the country they’re leaving and they’ve got family in the United States, we want to look closer at them.”

The secretary said other countries must get on board with modern databases and passport systems or their residents won’t get in the U.S.

“This would be worldwide,” he said. “We have to raise this on a worldwide basis and we’ll do that. It’s not just six. There are many countries, oddly enough — I was looking at the list, and I’m not going to tell you what the list is — but there are … countries out there that surprised me that they don’t have the top-of-the-line passports as an example. Some countries don’t have passports that anyone in this room, this tent, would recognize. So the attempt, just like in aviation security, is raise the bar for the world by saying we need to go in this direction, otherwise you’re not coming to the United States.”

One audience member, who did not identify himself, questioned Kelly on why other countries, such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — all of which have harbored terrorists who attacked the Western world — weren’t included in the ban.

Kelly, who noted he was not part of the Trump campaign and had never met him until after his November triumph, said that was a valid question, which is why he is looking at “extreme vetting” to take place worldwide.

“You’re right,” Kelly said, adding that “we have to find people that are coming to the United States for nefarious purposes.”

Kelly also said states should take advantage of the federal government’s willingness to help with their election systems, given Russia’s tampering last year.

“I think they’re nuts if they don’t because in the world we live in cyber-wise, any second, third, fourth objective look at what you’re doing would make sense,” Kelly said.

While much of the talk was somber, Kelly showed his humorous side as well after his cellphone rang.

“It might be the president, so I do want to miss the call,” he said.


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