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Saturday, December 09, 2006

House Passes Bill Aimed at Keeping Handheld Missiles Away From Terrorists

Governments who knowingly transfer handheld surface-to-air missiles to terrorists will face government sanctions as part of a comprehensive bill authored by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and approved by the House of Representatives late last night.

"One of the greatest threats to civilian and military aircraft is handheld surface-to-air missiles. These weapons give terrorists the ability to kill hundreds of people with one shot. We cannot allow these destructive weapons to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda or another terrorist organization bent on using them to kill innocent Americans. We must use all means at our disposal to prevent such a scenario," says Smith, outgoing chairman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations.

The provision was included in comprehensive legislation authored by Smith to provide the State Department with a number of new authorities that impact the safety of our country and ease the burdens on Americans conducting diplomatic missions overseas. Smith's measure, the "Department of State Authorities Act of 2006" (H.R. 6060), passed the House by voice vote and will now move on to the Senate.

If enacted into law, the bill would empower the President to withdraw any economic and military assistance to a country that knowingly transfers man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to terrorist organizations or a foreign government that sponsors terrorism.

"One estimate puts the number of MANPADS in the world today at 500,000. They are lethal, highly portable, inexpensive and widely available on the black market. This new authority for the State Department will help secure and eliminate these particularly dangerous conventional weapons," says Smith.

Smith said the provision is a key part of the comprehensive bill which gives the State Department more authorities in the war on terrorism.

"Diplomacy is our number one weapon in the War on Terror. With that in mind, we must ensure that the State Department is provided all the authorities it needs to carry the ostentatious task of helping us win this global war while protecting American citizens overseas. This bill encompasses a broad mixture of provisions that, when taken as whole, will enable the State Department to carry out their diplomatic missions abroad more effectively," says Smith.

Another authority in the bill that will aid the State Department's anti-terror efforts is a provision that grants flexibility in the spending of fraud prevention and detection monies toward investigating a broad array of fraud, including fraud in connection with terrorist activities. Currently, the State Department is allowed to spend monies to investigate fraud pertaining to certain types of visas only. Since fraud issues are not so discreet or easy to detect, the department needs the flexibility to investigate other related types of fraud and the authorities in this bill allow them to carry those investigations out.

"The current constraints on the State Department's efforts to detect and prevent visa fraud hampers our ability to disrupt terrorist travel. By providing the State Department with the flexibility to spend funds to investigate all forms of visa fraud, we should be able to more effectively deter attempts by terrorists to exploit the system," says Smith.

The bill also extends loan guarantees and other of assistance to Israel, including the reauthorization of a program to transfer to Israel obsolete or surplus stocks in the War Reserve Stockpile located in Israel.

Among the other provisions in the bill is one that strengthens the State Department's ability to assist Americans caught in humanitarian crisis overseas by waiving passport fees for Americans unable to pay for emergency passports to return to the United States.

"The primary duty of the U.S. government to its citizens who find themselves caught in a humanitarian crisis abroad -- be it a natural disaster like the 2004 Tsunami in South Asia or a violent conflict like the clashes in Lebanon earlier this year -- is to remove them from the danger as expeditiously as possible. This bill will improve the efficiency of our consular sections overseas in responding to those crisis situations and protect Americans in extreme distress," says Smith.

The bill also includes provisions to:

-- Require the secretary of State to expand reporting in the department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices to include reports, when applicable, a description of the nature and extent of propaganda in foreign government controlled media that attempts to justify or promote racial hatred;

-- Enhance the education allowance for overseas employee dependents to allow for travel to the U.S. for children when K-12 schools at posts are not adequate, for educational travel to a school outside the U.S. for children at the secondary and college level and for the option of storing a child's personal effects near the school during his or her trip to post, rather than transporting the effects back and forth;

-- Grant the president the authority to extend privileges and immunities to the African Union's (AU) newly established diplomatic mission to the U.S. and to the Pope's Observer Mission to the United Nations;

-- Establish a criminal provision that provides for penalties when an individual interferes with a Secret Service agent protecting a foreign dignitary.


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