The Bush administration is poised to remove US visa requirements for the citizens of seven allied countries. US congressional aides told The Associated Press that US President George W Bush plans to announce Friday that Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and South Korea will be added to the US visa waiver program as early as next month.
The White House would not confirm the list, but Bush was scheduled to make an announcement on the visa waiver program Friday. The congressional aides spoke on condition of anonymity because the president will announce the decision.
The administration has sought to reward close allies with visa-free travel but has met resistance from some lawmakers, who worry that the visa waiver program makes it easier for terrorists to slip into the United States.
The program currently includes 27 countries, among them most of Western Europe. Exclusion has been a sore point among some new NATO allies that have supported U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of those countries, including Poland, did not make Friday's list because they could not meet admission requirements.
The seven countries to be announced Friday had been widely expected to meet requirements and be included. Negotiations with Greece, which has long sought to join other Western European countries in the program, have faltered, prompting complaints from the Greek government and Greek-American groups that it is being punished because of unrelated political disagreements with Washington.
The administration's move to waive some criteria for admission to allow the seven countries in before the end of Bush's term in January is provoking congressional criticism. Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, a supporter of the visa waiver program, said Thursday that the administration had not met conditions for admitting the countries.
"I am dismayed the administration has decided to expand the Visa Waiver Program before implementing security measures required by law, a move that could very well jeopardize the security of the United States," he said in an e-mail to the AP.
A law passed last year opened the way for the expansion of the program. But lawmakers insisted that the government implement a system that would requiring visitors traveling without visas to register online with U.S. authorities before their departures and provide some personal information. Lieberman contends that program will not be in place when the new countries join.
Last week, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis called the expected U.S. decision to exclude her country unjustified. Greek officials and Greek-American groups contend that the country was left out to punish it for blocking Macedonia's membership in NATO because of a disagreement over former Yugoslav Republic's name since independence.
Greece argues the name Macedonia implies expansionist claims on its northern province of the same name, which the country of Macedonia rejects. Greece has complained that the Macedonian government has been responsible for hostile propaganda, including maps used in textbooks that show parts of Greece within Macedonian borders.
To Washington's displeasure, Athens has vowed to prevent its neighbor from joining NATO or the European Union until the name problem is resolved.