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US scales back standards on passports for allies

WASHINGTON -- Yielding to allies overseas, the United States will not require foreign visitors to show passports with fingerprints or iris scans. Instead, new biometric passport standards to be announced soon will require digital photographs and an embedded identification chip.

The photographs, which can be matched with a person's unique physical characteristics, will be required by October and the embedded identification chip later. They would be similar to international biometric guidelines already in place.

The standards take a step back from what the United States initially envisioned for biometric passports, but the Department of Homeland Security said it still plans to require expanded biometric data in passports.

Without the revision, visitors from so-called visa-waiver nations that could not meet the stricter standards potentially faced being barred from entering the United States this fall. The Homeland Security official said the department was expected to unveil the new standards soon.

Initially, the United States considered whether to require fingerprinting or iris identification features in biometric passports, making the documents virtually impossible to counterfeit. A 2002 law required visitors from 27 allied nations that are not required to apply for a US visa to carry the high-tech passports.

But the visa-waiver nations, mostly in Europe, failed to meet the October 2004 deadline, prompting US officials to revamp their requirements.

The new rules would allow the visa-waiver nations to comply with less stringent biometric guidelines similar to those set in 2003 by a branch of the United Nations. Those guidelines require digital photos and machinereadable chips to store identifying information in passports.

The changes would be made after months of negotiations between the United States and its allies, and between the Bush administration and Congress.

Visiting Brussels last month, Michael Chertoff, homeland security secretary, reaffirmed the United States' commitment to biometrics as a high-tech approach to security screening ''compatible on both sides of the Atlantic."

''Right now, in many ways we are using the most primitive kind of screening -- meaning we screen for names that match lists of terrorists and criminals," Chertoff said during that trip. ''And of course, names are not the best way to identify people. They're certainly not as good as biometrics."

On Monday, Canada's ambassador predicted that the United States would drop a controversial proposal that would require travelers to show passports in order to cross the 4,000-mile border between the neighboring nations.

Discussions with the Bush administration, which introduced guidelines to crack down on terrorist travel across borders, indicates that ''passports will not be the ultimate requirements," Ambassador Frank McKenna of Canada said.

Currently, US and Canadian travelers need only driver's licenses to cross the border, although passports are often shown, officials say.

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