The Bush administration announced yesterday that it was immediately suspending two visa exemption programs that allow foreign travelers to enter the United States temporarily, a move that administration officials said was prompted by intelligence reports suggesting that al-Qaida was planning to exploit the programs to hijack passenger planes.
The programs - one known as Transit Without Visa, the other as International to International - usually allow hundreds of thousands of foreigners each year to pass through the United States without visas on their way to other countries.
But in a joint statement yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department said they had received specific intelligence, including information from the FBI and the CIA, that certain terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, had identified the visa and passport exemption programs as a means to gain access to aircraft en route to or from the United States.
The departments said that they were suspending both programs for at least 60 days and that the suspensions took effect at midday yesterday, which will almost certainly spoil the plans of tens of thousands of foreigners who had wanted to use the program to travel through airports in the United States.
In the announcement, the Homeland Security Department and the State Department said that they recognized the confusion their decision would cause and that exceptions to the new rules would be made for three types of travelers: those who were in flight at the time the regulations went into effect, those who bought their tickets before July 25 and had planned to depart before Tuesday, and those who had traveled through the United States under the programs on the first leg of their journey.
The departments said other details of the new rules would be made available on their Web sites: www.dhs.gov and www. state.gov.
The announcement emphasized that the new rules would have no effect on Americans or on foreigners who are not required to have a visa to enter the United States, including citizens of major Western European nations.
Both departments said they intended to reinstate the two programs as soon as additional security measures could be put in place to safeguard the programs from terrorists who wish to gain access to the United States or its airspace.
Suspension of the programs had been expected, although the abruptness - with only a few hours' notice to airlines and to travelers - was a surprise. Last weekend, the Department of Homeland Security issued a travel advisory to airlines, warning that al-Qaida might be planning to hijack or bomb passenger planes and urging airline security officials to give special scrutiny to passengers who were traveling to the United States without visas.
Administration officials said that the intelligence suggesting potential hijackings had been received through recent interrogations of a captured Qaida terrorist and that his warnings had been corroborated through other intelligence sources.
Referring to the suspension of the programs, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a statement, "We know they will have an impact on international travelers, but we believe they are necessary in order to protect lives and property."
The Transit Without Visa program was begun in 1952 and allows passengers who would normally need a visa to enter the United States to change planes here without a visa on their way to another country.
Government figures show that 381,000 foreign travelers stopped in the United States under the program last year, with most of them from Latin America or Asia.
The International to International program requires travelers without a visa to connect immediately to a flight to another country, without leaving the international transit lounge at the U.S. airport where they arrive. About 233,000 foreign travelers stopped in the United States under that program last year.