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Much of the nation received a shock last year from the reporting of National Review’s Joel Mowbray, the winner of the 2003 Eugene Katz Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Immigration. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, much journalistic scrutiny was directed at the FBI and CIA and federal law enforcement in general for failed intelligence efforts and coordination directed at combating terrorism. We saw hand wringing over airport security procedures and debates about the formation of a Department of Homeland Security. But not until Mr. Mowbray’s aggressive reporting for National Review, National Review Online, and his column at townhall.com did public attention turn to the front line in America’s national security: Our embassies and consulates overseas, where millions of visas for admission into the United States are granted by consular officers each year.
Early in 2002 Mr. Mowbray broke away from the pack of reporters covering the State Department; he saw a stunning story, one long ignored, and it was as simple as it was symptomatic of the larger bureaucratic dysfunction related to America’s immigration system: The State Department wasn’t following the law, and America’s security was being compromised.
Immigration law requires visa officers at consulates and embassies overseas to presume that all visa applicants are “intending immigrants,” but Mr. Mowbray’s investigative reporting detailed a “courtesy culture” emanating from the highest levels at State, a climate in which foreign visa applicants were (and still are) viewed as customers to whom extraordinary deference ought to be offered. Spearheading this customer-friendly climate was Mary Ryan, head of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Specifically, Ms. Ryan initiated and championed a program called Visa Express, an end-run around the visa screening process which effectively allowed travel agencies in Saudi Arabia to pass out visas. Millions of Americans, including many members of Congress, first heard about Visa Express from Mr. Mowbray’s reporting. Of Saudi Arabia Mr. Mowbray duly noted that it sent the U.S. 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, and that even after 9/11, fewer than 30 percent of Saudi visa applicants were being interviewed.
If Visa Express didn’t set off security alarm bells about State’s lax visa screening procedures, Mr. Mowbray’s reporting on the visa applications of the 9/11 hijackers surely did. In what surely was the apex of his investigative work last year, Mr. Mowbray obtained the actual visa application forms for 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers (the other four applications were destroyed by State). His October 28, 2002, National Review cover story, “Visas for Terrorists,” uncovered “criminal negligence” by the State Department, according to a consular official who reviewed them. This swiftly led to congressional hearings, and the story was a major discussion topic on talk radio and cable news for weeks.
Mr. Mowbray dramatically captured the State Department’s “service first, security second” mindset for his readers in a November 22, 2002, column at townhall.com: “The consular official who issued 10 of the visas to the 9/11 terrorists has said that she would not have granted the visas if not for pressure from her supervisors within the State Department,” he wrote.
Mr. Mowbray would find State Department malfeasance fertile territory for investigative journalism in 2002; we have included six of what we’ve judged to be his most important columns on the Department in this booklet, but a cursory Nexis search of his reporting for the year unearths nearly two dozen individual indictments. His sources were impeccable and well placed within the Department, and he became so much a burr at the Department’s daily press briefings that he was actually detained by a security officer on July 12, 2002, and questioned about his sources.
We would be remiss in not acknowledging the substantial effects that Mr. Mowbray’s reporting had. Last July Mr. Mowbray wrote, “Consular’s Affair’s house must be cleaned, and Mary Ryan’s ‘courtesy culture’ must be remade into one that emphasizes border security above all else. Our very safety depends on it.” And, in fact, Visa Express was discontinued and Mary Ryan was fired not long after Mr. Mowbray began writing about them. There is still a lot of work to be done to improve the front line security role played by consular officers, but due in large measure to Mr. Mowbray’s reporting in 2002, the United States launched some significant reforms.
The Center recognizes Mr. Mowbray’s contributions by naming him the winner of this year’s Katz Award. The award was named after Eugene Katz, a native New Yorker who started his career, after Dartmouth and Oxford, as a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman. In 1928, he joined the family business, working as an advertising salesman for the Katz Agency, and in 1952 became president of Katz Communications, a half-billion-dollar firm which not only dealt in radio and television advertising but also owned and managed a number of radio stations. Mr. Katz was a member of the Center for Immigration Studies board until shortly after his 90th birthday in 1997. He passed away in 2000.
The Center for Immigration Studies is an independent non-profit, non-partisan research institute which examines and critiques the impact of immigration on the United States. It is animated by a pro-immigrant/low-immigration vision, but offers the Katz Award not to promote a certain point of view but to foster informed decision-making on an issue so central to America’s future.
Center for Immigration Studies
Joel Mowbray Articles
1. Open door for terrorists still open
2. Catching the Visa Express; The awful program that allows Saudis to skip into the U.S.
3. State Defense; The government is still defending Visa Express
4. Visa Express Axed; The State Department acts
5. Visa Fraud, Uninterrupted; Qatar scandal the latest mess occurring on State’s watch
6. Visas for Terrorists: They were ill-prepared. They were laughable. They were approved.
Open door for terrorists still open
By Joel Mowbray
Townhall.com, June 27, 2002
The agency that let in all 19 Sept. 11th terrorists should absolutely be a part of the new Department of Homeland Defense — but that’s not the plan. The State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA), however, has proven that it can’t be trusted to keep potential terrorists out of the country — or even to be honest with Congress and the American people.
The Civil Service subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee is holding hearings on CA today. I will be testifying, in large part because of my articles on the topic in last week’s Post and the current National Review. These revealed that CA, which oversees U.S. consulates and visa issuance, has compromised our border security in its quest to make visa applications convenient — for foreigners.
In the vast majority of countries around the world, visa applicants are only interviewed if they fail on paper first. Paper applications fail for only two basic reasons: poverty, or a criminal record, hurdles most al Qaeda sleepers can clear.
Just a decade ago, almost everyone was interviewed at least once before obtaining a visa to enter the United States. But CA chief Mary Ryan has assiduously and systematically worked to scrap the interview requirement in consulates worldwide — meaning more and more people arrive in the United States without ever coming into contact with a U.S. citizen until they step off the airplane onto American soil. And Mary Ryan thinks this is a "very worthy goal."
"What’s absolutely stunning is that even 9/11 didn’t change the way consulates operate. It’s still business as usual," fumes a senior CA official.
It gets worse. CA is fighting against closing even the most glaring loophole in our border security: the Visa Express program, under which anyone living in Saudi Arabia, including non-citizens, can submit visa applications to a travel agent. In its first three months of operation, the program admitted three of the 9/11 hijackers to America.
Since my articles exposed these facts, CA in the last week did just two things to the program: 1) it dropped the name "Visa Express," and 2) it changed the way the program was described on the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh.
That was it.
A quick call yesterday to one of the participating travel agencies in Riyadh confirms that the program is still going strong, as the agent explained, "Don’t worry - only the Web site changed. It’s still easy to get a visa."
Such deceptive "reforms" are par for the agency’s course. To shield Visa Express from closer scrutiny last fall, CA lied about the visa refusal rates for applicants from Saudi Arabia. It claimed only 3 percent of Saudis were refused last year; in fact, 23 percent of all applicants in Saudi Arabia in 2001 were refused. CA only admitted this massive discrepancy after I had obtained an internal CA document with the true figure.
Change will not happen from within CA; when the State Department’s Inspector General (IG) audits CA, the inspection team is headed up by a current or former CA employee. That’s right — CA is responsible for auditing itself. Arthur Andersen got in a lot more trouble for a lot less.
If it wasn’t clear before 9/11, it must be now: Visa screening is the frontline of our border security. CA is a bloated bureaucracy trapped in the death grip of inertia, and it will not change, not even in the wake of the worst terrorist action in our history.
The only solution is making CA part of the new Department of Homeland Defense. Hopefully, today’s hearing will spur Congress to action.
Copyright © 2002, Joel Mowbray. Reprinted with permission.
Catching the Visa Express
The awful program that allows Saudis to skip into the U.S.
By Joel Mowbray
National Review, July 1, 2002
Three Saudis who were among the last of the 9/11 homicide hijackers to enter this country didn’t visit a U.S. embassy or consulate to get their visas; they went to a travel agent, to whom they submitted only a short, two-page form and a photo. The program that made this possible, Visa Express, is still using travel agents in Saudi Arabia to fulfill this vital role in U.S. border security.
Shortly after 9/11, the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA), the agency within the State Department that oversees visa issuance as well as embassies and consulates in foreign nations, directed its offices around the world to "take a hard look at their current visa operations and see if there are any measures that could be taken to further strengthen the process." An obvious target for this review should have been Visa Express, which allows residents of Saudi Arabia, including non-Saudi citizens, to apply for non-immigrant visas at private travel agencies. After submitting the short form and photo to a travel agent, applicants simply wait to receive a visa in the mail. Most Saudi applicants never come into direct contact with a U.S. citizen until stepping off the airplane onto American soil.
One senior CA official describes the program as "an open-door policy for terrorists." It’s striking that three 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. through Visa Express, because the program was established just three months before 9/11. And that’s not the only reason Visa Express has raised serious concerns among security experts. Take a sample month: The U.S. consulate in Jeddah interviewed only two of 104 applicants, rejecting none. The month in question? The first 30 days after 9/11. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that enjoys such privileges when it comes to visas. (In some other nations, partial versions of Visa Express are available — but to very few applicants. Twenty-eight countries — almost all in Western Europe — participate in Visa Waiver, which permits travel to America without a visa.)
So Visa Express is on the chopping block, surely? Not even close. The U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia breathlessly promotes the program. The embassy’s website proclaims that "applicants will no longer have to take time off from work [and] no longer have to wait in long lines under the hot sun." Use of the program is not simply encouraged; it is expected of applicants.
In December 2001, assistant secretary for consular affairs Mary Ryan boasted in an internal memo that CA "has been fully involved in the campaign against terrorism." Despite her claims, little has been done to try to close this particular "open door" for terrorists. Last October, the embassy assured Saudis that the U.S. had "not changed its procedures or policies in determining visa eligibility as a result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001." And internal actions at CA indicate that nothing has changed since. Senior CA officials concede that reform of Visa Express is not being seriously considered.
The Visa Express program is a symptom of deeply rooted problems in the bureau, which is charged with a unique, and conflicting, pair of goals: to provide public diplomacy on the front lines and to screen out potential terrorists before they reach our shores. In the past decade, CA has done a solid job achieving the former objective, but it has come at the expense of the latter. "Mary Ryan has chosen diplomacy over law enforcement," complains Nikolai Wenzel, a former consular officer in Mexico City.
CA is fully aware of the contradictoriness of its aims. In a cable outlining model practices for consulates, Ryan lists the elements of an interview that follows a visa application. "An interviewing officer must be alert to, and investigate, fraud indicators without unduly offending a potentially bona fide applicant. Achieving all this in a few minutes’ interview is not easy." A "few minutes" is typically 2-3 minutes, and that’s only for a relative handful of applicants who initially are turned down for a visa.
Ryan refers to the visa window as the "face of the embassy," providing "front line diplomacy." Foreign Service officers (FSOs), who staff consulates, are inundated with messages about politeness and courtesy, and their job-performance reviews focus primarily on those factors, not on their ability to screen out terrorists. This "courtesy culture" has been intentionally nurtured by Ryan in her nine years as the head of CA. She continually stresses the importance of "fundamental fairness" — for foreigners, even those who don’t meet the relatively low standards for receiving a visa.
In loosening the visa-application process, Ryan may have crossed lines established by Congress. Wenzel flatly states: "Mary Ryan’s instructions are in direct violation of the law." He points to the intense pressure placed on FSOs to grant visas in the absence of a compelling reason to refuse an application: "The burden of proof is supposed to be on the applicant under the law, but the reality in the field was just the opposite."
Ryan’s tenure has been marked by a steady decline in the number of applicants subjected to interviews. "It used to be most people were interviewed; now it’s about one-fifth," notes Jessica Vaughan, a former consular officer in Belgium and Trinidad and Tobago. The new policy followed at most consulates is that an interview is conducted only if an application is red-flagged, and thus refused, on the first check. An application can be set aside for follow-up for a number of reasons, such as suspicious reasons listed for travel (an eight-month vacation for a lower-middle-class Mexican, for example) or the presence of the applicant’s name in the lookout system, a composite database of 5.7 million people on various watch lists.
A June 2001 cable from Ryan clearly states the current policy: "No refusals without an interview." The same cable goes on to say that visa applicants must be given "every reasonable opportunity to establish eligibility to receive a visa." Every refused applicant is entitled to an oral and written explanation for the reasons behind the refusal. Depending on the consulate, up to one-fifth of rejected applicants overcome the refusal and secure a visa by providing additional documentation or proving credible in an interview.
Vaughan suspects that the dramatic reduction in interviews is part of a larger plan by Ryan: "[Her] ultimate goal is to make it possible for consular officers to get through the day without seeing any applicants or having to say no to anybody." This cynical view is at least partially borne out by Ryan’s own words. The head of CA has made no secret of her desire to eliminate the interview requirement wherever possible, stating in a CA cable that this is a "very worthy goal."
Surprisingly, though, Ryan strongly believes that interviews are essential to the visa process. Well, sort of. "When it comes to judging credibility, there is simply no substitute for a personal interview," she wrote in a 2001 cable. The memo goes on to instruct consular officers to "rely primarily on the interview itself, and only minimally on supporting documentation." Her missive praises interviews, however, not as a way to keep out bad guys, but as a way to avoid keeping out "qualified aliens who may have appeared weak on paper, but could have overcome [that appearance] with a strong showing of credibility." She never discusses the possibility that interviews could screen out applicants who look strong on paper but are not credible in person.
CA is also very concerned about the system’s convenience for applicants. Ryan explains that the intent of CA’s policy is to "permit waiver of the interview when it is clear that the alien is eligible for the visa and an interview would be an unnecessary inconvenience." But eliminating interviews is not considered a wise move by law-enforcement experts, who place a premium on the value of face-to-face contact. "It’s not foolproof, but at least interviews give you a much better chance of keeping out dangerous individuals," says former CIA director Jim Woolsey.
Even when CA does turn its attention to border security, it tends not to focus on keeping out the most dangerous applicants. "If you’re a drug smuggler from Sweden, your chances of getting in are almost 100 percent. If you’re a perfectly responsible, God-fearing person from Guatemala, your chances of getting in are maybe 10 percent," says Wayne Merry, a former consular officer. CA doesn’t hide its policy regarding the role of money in determining visa eligibility. CA spokesman Ed Dickens casually admits that countries with high refusal rates almost always "have lots of poor people."
Focusing attention on the poor might make sense when battling an epidemic of illegal nannies flooding homes in the Hollywood Hills, but it seems an unwise strategy when it comes to screening out terrorists. "What’s absolutely stunning is that even 9/11 didn’t change the way consulates operate. It’s still business as usual," fumes a senior CA official.
The role of money in the visa process is especially pronounced in Visa Express, because CA’s written policy is that "if the travel agency is reasonably satisfied that the traveler has the means to buy a tour ‘package,’ there will be little further evaluation of the applicant’s qualifications." In other words, anyone able to flash a wad of cash — something any al-Qaeda operative could do — is automatically eligible for a visa. Applicants are still primarily screened for their likelihood of trying to get a minimum-wage job once in America, not for any potential security threats they might pose.
Although a poor person can be denied a visa on poverty grounds, someone with a history of advocating terrorism cannot be refused for, well, advocating terrorism. U.S. law prevents denial of a visa to a person simply because he has a history of advocating terrorism; an applicant may be rejected only if he has actively aided a terrorist organization, or if he gives a reason — aside from actually advocating terrorism — for the consulate to believe that he might commit a terrorist act. (The recently enacted Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act failed to address this issue.)
Visa Express also faces logistical challenges. The name and date of birth of all applicants are entered into a computer and checked against the lookout database; the search parameters are intentionally set wide, so that anyone in the system with a similar name or date of birth registers as a possible match. An FSO must then scroll through the list and determine whether one is a match to the applicant. An example: In Saudi Arabia, the name Muhammed al-Wahabi, the Arab equivalent of John Smith, with a date of birth around 1977, could result in up to 100 potential hits for the FSO to scroll through. To fully appreciate the complexity of this task, one must factor in the time element: FSOs in Saudi Arabia process anywhere between 40 and 80 applications per day, and conduct an additional 10 to 20 interviews.
State Department spokesman Christopher Lamora claims that "it is not technologically possible to issue visas to people whose names appear in the system and fail to clear the system." In the literal sense, Lamora’s statement is correct, but a name can clear the system if the FSO simply doesn’t spot the match to an applicant. A classic example of human error occurred in a South Asian nation, where a young woman was refused on her first two visa applications. On her third try, she filled out the two-page form in exactly the same fashion, save for one detail: She changed her date of birth by two years. It worked. The FSO processing her third application missed her on the list. This human error occurred less than four months ago.
Even in the absence of human error, the software faces major, and often insurmountable, hurdles in tracking Arab names. There is no single transliteration system from Arabic to English, which means that any Arabic word, including a name, can have a dozen or more correct English spellings. Think Osama versus Usama, or Yasser versus Yasir. And those are the easy ones. Consider an Arabic name with a personal name, an honorific, a patronymic, a lakab (usually a religious name denoting a personal virtue), a nickname, an occupational name, and a hisba (derived from one’s residence or place of birth), or any combination thereof, and you can start to appreciate the difficulties facing the software.
Furthermore, this screening process is conducted by junior-level officers with little experience. FSOs responsible for visa screening are new to the Foreign Service, typically young, often unmotivated, and almost always under-trained and under-prepared. Consular officers who check visas are derisively referred to within the Foreign Service as "visa-stampers." It’s a mandatory stint for every FSO — a two-year paying of dues.
Compounding the potential for errors in Visa Express is the de facto deputization of private Saudi travel agents. These gents — who have no formal relationship with consulates and operate with very little oversight — are expected to handle some of the consulate’s workload. "The consular officer is relying on the travel agency to screen out obviously unqualified applicants," notes one CA cable.
Even the most clearly dangerous applicants have a way to slip past the guardians: sheer fraud. Abdulla Noman, a Yemeni citizen and Saudi resident who worked at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, admitted last month that he had sold between 50 and 100 visas, from September 1996 until last November, when he was arrested. Officials have not yet been able to locate all the people who obtained visas through Noman. U.S. officials caught Noman because he worked directly for the consulate; it’s not as easy to catch the travel agents.
With mounds of reporting (some in this magazine) exposing Saudi Arabia as a breeding ground for anti-American fanaticism and radical Islam, the natural question is why the Saudis have been singled out for the special treatment of Visa Express. At least some of the blame must rest on Ryan’s "courtesy culture," which was directly injected into the consulate there by Thomas P. Furey, who was consul general in Riyadh from summer 2000 through fall 2001, and who was responsible for implementation of Visa Express. Furey, a confidant of Ryan, is well known within CA for his trademark expression: "People gotta have their visas."
Of course, the official line on why Saudi Arabia received Visa Express is that it is a trustworthy source of qualified visa applicants — an argument that seems less compelling in the wake of 9/11. State Department spokesman Lamora said that Visa Express was instituted because of "a traditionally low visa-refusal rate and incidence of fraud among Saudi applicants." This justification is in keeping with unofficial, but observed, guidelines at CA. According to a senior CA official, the typical practice is that so-called "third-party screening" is not implemented on a large scale in countries with refusal rates of 6 percent or higher. CA has reported that the refusal rate for Saudis is a scant 3 percent — justifying the existence of the Visa Express program.
Those numbers, however, are very misleading, if not outright false. According to a consular document from Riyadh, the overall refusal rate for Saudi national and third-country-national (TCN) applicants was 24 percent. The document showed a refusal rate for TCNs of 30 percent, and for Saudi nationals of over 10 percent. The CA press office vociferously denied the statistics — until, that is, it was presented with the summary of a document obtained from an unnamed source at CA. The press office now concedes — for the first time — that the overall refusal rate for Saudi nationals and TCNs is 23 percent. The only remaining point of contention is the breakdown of refusal rates for Saudi nationals and TCNs; CA still maintains that the refusal rate for Saudi nationals is 3 percent. But even if CA’s figures on Saudi nationals are correct, the bureau is still violating its own internal protocol by granting Visa Express to a country where nearly one-fourth of applicants are refused.
Former CIA director Woolsey recommends that "at the very least [Visa Express] be thoroughly reviewed, and most likely overhauled." One — unlikely — option would be to scrap the program altogether as a way to alter our relationship with the Saudis. "This is a policy statement we’re making by granting easy visas, and it would make an even greater statement if we stopped the program," asserts a senior administration official. Any system that replaces Visa Express would have to be designed with some simple facts in mind. Adam Garfinkle, editor of The National Interest, is quick to note: "The entire Saudi society generates attitudes that are inherently anti-American. That’s just the way it is. At the same time, the Saudi government has sought very close ties with the United States. Ultimately, these two things are incompatible."
As for the president’s plan to create a new cabinet-level department for homeland defense, it’s likely to have only a marginal impact on the operations of Consular Affairs. Although the administration blueprint suggests that the new agency will eventually oversee visa procedures, the State Department insists that it "will continue to administer the visa application issuance process." Even if the new agency successfully wrested control of visas from CA, the shift in authority would take years.
Nor would the new fingerprint-and-photograph tracking of visitors and immigrants recently announced by attorney general John Ashcroft have an immediate impact on Visa Express. The tracking is already in place for people coming from five Middle Eastern nations — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria — but there are no indications Saudi Arabia will make the list anytime soon. Even if Saudis were subjected to this treatment, however, only identity fraud would be curtailed. People with clean records but malicious intent would face no additional hurdles.
And the systemic problem with the visa process reaches far beyond Saudi Arabia. "The entire culture at CA must change before reforms will mean anything," says a senior CA official. Mary Ryan’s "courtesy culture" is inherently inimical to the types of reforms necessary to keep out terrorists. It — and she — must go.
Copyright © 2002, National Review. Reprinted with permission.
The government is still defending Visa Express.
National Review Online, July 9, 2002
With Congress nearing final action on the new Department of Homeland Security, the State Department has kicked its efforts into overdrive to hold onto visa-issuance powers, which many in Congress want to transfer to the new department as a necessary measure to safeguard our border security. Since all 19 of the 9/11 hijackers came here on legal visas, logic alone would dictate that visa issuance is a vital issue of homeland security.
Just before the holiday last week, in an act of desperation, Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Paul Kelly, sent Congress a three-page memo called "National Review Article on Visa Express: Myths & Facts."
Given that it took over two weeks for anyone at State to offer up any kind of a written response to the NR story on the program in Saudi Arabia that let in three of the Sept. 11 hijackers in the three months it was in operation before 9/11, one might anticipate a detailed, factual rebuttal. Anyone expecting that, however, would be sadly disappointed.
Continuing a trend that began with the department’s first response — on Fox News fully one week after news of the story had hit the airwaves — State’s missive cleverly implied (through the "Myth" labels) that "Catching the Visa Express" from the July 1 issue of NR was filled with lies. Curiously, though, "Myths & Facts" — like prior State responses — lacked any actual evidence or facts to support its case.
State has gone to the greatest lengths to fight the perception — grounded in reality — that Visa Express in Saudi Arabia created a system where the majority of visa applicants never come into contact with a U.S. citizen until stepping off the airplane onto American soil. Visa Express makes this possible because, by design, all visa applicants in Saudi Arabia, including non-citizens, merely submit a two-page form and a photo to a private Saudi travel agent.
The official State line rebutting this charge? The first "Fact" listed on the memo states, "Over the past year, approximately 45% of visa applicants in Saudi Arabia have been personally interviewed." Do the math, and that means that 55 percent of visa applicants, or most, are not interviewed. But a quick analysis of the interview figure actually reveals that State’s deception goes much deeper.
Under the direction of Mary Ryan, the head of Consular Affairs (CA), the agency within the State Department that oversees consulates and visa issuance, the interview requirement has been systematically scrapped in consulate after consulate. Agency-wide, the only time an interview is required is after a visa is refused, meaning that all refusals automatically trigger an interview, where applicants are given a second chance to obtain a visa.
In 2001, nearly one-fourth of all visa applicants in Saudi Arabia were refused, which means that visa refusals accounted for more than half of all the interviews conducted in that country. In other words, CA did not interview 45 percent of applicants because it felt compelled to screen out bad guys, but to be "fair" to those refused, giving those people an opportunity to overcome a refusal with a strong showing at an interview.
In fact, once people refused a visa are taken out of the equation, only 27 percent of people issued visas in Saudi Arabia were interviewed first. No matter how you slice it, the 73 percent of visa holders skipping an interview are not just "infants" and "elderly people", as State contends. The three 9/11 terrorists who got into this country through Visa Express — without ever being interviewed — were certainly neither "infants" nor "elderly."
But focusing on whether or not people get interviewed by consular officers obscures the more important point: interviews, as they are now conducted, do precious little to screen out terrorists. The typical interview lasts two-three minutes, and is primarily designed to keep out people wishing to overstay a temporary visa and become an immigrant. Consular officers are supposed to keep out those seeking to immigrate through visas, but those are pretty much the only visa applicants being screened out by interviews.
In the nearly ten months since 9/11, CA has not even begun to seriously design a protocol for ferreting out terrorists during the interview process. Consular officers still, post-9/11, receive less than five hours total training on conducting an interview. After reading a scant three pages in the training book and handling five-ten supervised mock interviews (at two-three minutes each), consular officers are tossed out into the field, charged with the responsibility of serving as our front line of border security, expected to keep out people wishing to do us harm.
Consular Officers, though, are not the problem. As "Myths & Facts" correctly notes, consular officers are often highly educated, bright individuals. But the structure of CA and the lack of training virtually guarantee that they are thrown into the field ill equipped and ill prepared to protect us from terrorists. Since the NR story came out, former and current consular officers have come out of the woodwork to praise the piece, universally agreeing that Mary Ryan’s "courtesy culture" at CA has sacrificed border security at the altar of convenience — for foreigners.
As a way of defending Visa Express and the scuttling of the interview requirement, CA and State are proud to note that 12 of the Saudi 9/11 terrorists were interviewed. But this frightening fact doesn’t show that interviews don’t work, but that interviews designed by Consular Affairs don’t work. Mary Ryan’s "courtesy culture," which demands polite treatment of all visa applicants, is inimical to the very idea of law-enforcement-based interviews designed to ferret out bad guys.
Applicants are ushered in and out of the interview room in less time than it takes to drink a can of Diet Coke, because to do otherwise would be "inconvenient" for the person wishing to come to America. A woman at a bar needs to be sweet-talked by a guy for at least 10-15 minutes just to agree to speak with him over the phone sometime, yet in far less time than that, someone is able to obtain a visa to get into this country. No wonder 12 of the Saudi 9/11 terrorists sailed though cursory interviews.
The State Department maintains to this day that its computerized lookout system is state-of-the-art. Yet there are many examples of people who have skirted the system by tweaking names or dates of birth, including a suspected Colombian drug dealer earlier this year. But State’s almost sole reliance on the watch lists is downright foolish, if not dangerous, considering that al Qaeda sleeper cells are populated with people with no criminal records. Would interviews screen out all sleeper agents? No, but it would be better than simply waving them through, as we do now.
Despite the blood-tarnished history of Visa Express, which is still in operation in Saudi Arabia, CA secretly wants to make Visa Express the norm in countries around the world. Mary Ryan herself has called eliminating the interview requirement a "very worthy goal," and that has apparently not changed, even in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history. A senior CA official says, "Mary Ryan still wants to move to entirely rely on the lookout system, with very few interviews for non-refusals, if any at all."
The problems that plague the visa-issuance process cannot be fixed by the State Department, which simply does not have the institutional know-how to run a law-enforcement function. By refusing to close Visa Express, an unmitigated failure by any objective standards, State has shown itself to be incapable of, if not unwilling to, protect us from very real terrorist threats.
But even if State could clean house and close the gaping loopholes in our border security, there are few tasks that would be more central to the new Department of Homeland Security than keeping terrorists from reaching our shores in the first place.
Copyright © 2002, National Review. Reprinted with permission.
Visa Express Axed
The State Department acts.
National Review Online, July 10, 2002
Visa Express is finally on the way out. Word of this breaking — and encouraging — development comes as Congress is considering proposals to remove the visa-issuance powers from their current home in the State Department and as the investigation of Middle Eastern men buying illegal visas becomes public.
Bowing to a month’s worth of criticism of the program that let in three of the Sept. 11 hijackers in the three months it was in operation in Saudi Arabia before 9/11, the officials in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh have requested permission to shut down Visa Express.
A confidential memo from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh yesterday disclosed that within the next week, the U.S. embassy in Riyadh and U.S. Consulate in Jeddah will "move toward interviewing all adult applicants and toward eliminating the role of travel agencies in forwarding visa applications to the Embassy and Consulate."
Additionally, the head of Consular Affairs (CA), the agency within the State Department that oversees consulates and visa issuance, Mary Ryan, is also on the way out. Mary Ryan has been CA chief for nine years, and in that time she implemented a dangerous "courtesy culture" and has scrapped the interview requirement for visa applicants in consulates around the world. According to a senior administration official, "Undersecretary of State Grant Green [Ryan’s boss] called Mary Ryan into his office, and he told her it was time she resign."
The news of the departure of both Visa Express and Mary Ryan comes on the same day that two congressional committees are scheduled to vote on bills that would decide the ultimate fate of visa-issuance powers, whether such authority stays with the State Department or moves over to the new Department of Homeland Security. Although the State Department had no official comment last night, several other sources confirmed Mary Ryan’s exit.
It’s unlikely that the timing of Mary Ryan’s exit one day before congressional action was coincidental. "This was Powell’s way of saying, ‘I can do better.’ This is a huge turf war for him [to keep visa issuance], and he’s playing for keeps," comments a senior administration official. Congress shouldn’t fall for the head-fake, because the problems plaguing visa issuance go much deeper than just Visa Express or Mary Ryan.
Evidence of the corrosion of the visa-issuance process came to the surface again yesterday, with multiple news reports of massive visa fraud at the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar. Reports on "Operation Eagle Strike" note that authorities are investigating the possible illegal sale of up to 70 visas to mostly Middle Eastern men for $10,000 each. So far 31 holders of the fraudulent visas have been arrested.
The Qatar visa-selling scandal is hardly an isolated incident, however. Just last month, former consular officer Thomas Carroll was sentenced to 21 years in prison for selling up to 800 visas for $10,000 to $15,000 each in Guyana. According to prosecutors in his case, at least 26 of those who purchased illegal visas committed crimes in the United States, ranging from disorderly conduct to gang rape. The scariest part of the story is that Carroll was only caught because he was dumb enough to encourage his successor to continue his scheme. If the successor had gone along with Carroll, or simply chosen not to tip off authorities, Carroll might have gotten off.
Just this April, the Dallas Morning News reported that the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, was under FBI investigation for the illegal sale of visas, following the conviction that month of a consular officer for accepting bribes over several years. This March, a former Drug Enforcement Agency agent was convicted of fraud and bribery for helping several Nigerians acquire fraudulent non-immigrant visas.
If the purchasers of these illegal visas had been terrorists, or worse yet suicide bombers, the damage could have already been done before investigators even knew the visas had been sold.
As the new evidence on Qatar is making disturbingly clear, State has been incapable of closing off gaping loopholes in our border security. Would transferring the visa-issuance powers to Homeland Security be a panacea? No, but anything would have to be better than the untenable situation that now exists.
Given that all 19 of the 9/11 hijackers came here on legal visas, no function could be more central to homeland security than keeping terrorists from reaching our shores in the first place. Having consular officers who have received less than five hours of total interview training conducting cursory, two-to-three minute interviews of less than half of visa applicants is not just absurd — it’s an obvious threat to our border security.
Officials at State still refuse to acknowledge any problems with the way they conduct business. They were defending Visa Express as recently as Monday, still clinging to the belief that there was no security threat in deputizing private Saudi travel agents to handle the first step in the visa-screening process.
The fact that State doesn’t understand that every contact with a possible bad guy is important shows that that department just doesn’t get it. U.S. Customs agents, for example, often catch drug mules simply because someone looks nervous or antsy, triggering follow-up interviews. With visa applicants dropping off applications at travel agents, not to mention more than half of the time not being interviewed at all, consular officers are denied crucial opportunities to screen out those wishing to do us harm.
The people in the field in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia don’t get it, either. The confidential memo requesting termination of Visa Express blames the demise of the program on "uninformed media reports," never mentioning that three 9/11 terrorists gained entry to the United States through the program in just three months. The author, Ambassador Robert Jordan, offered the following reasoning for his decision: "I must be concerned with... the perception of what we are doing." The "perception" was not the problem; the reality was. In the country that sent us 15 of 19 9/11 terrorists, people were still, post-Sept. 11, submitting visa applications to travel agents — and State saw nothing wrong with this.
The elimination of Visa Express and the exodus of Mary Ryan are heartening, but are only the first step. CA’s house must be thoroughly cleaned, since "all of the people there are Mary Ryan’s people, and all the policies are her policies," notes a senior administration official.
The only effective method for cleaning house is to rid CA of her cronies and transfer the visa-issuance powers to the law enforcement-focused Department of Homeland Security. The latter action, though, faces stiff opposition from Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is determined to maintain the clout associated with visa powers. Congressional committee votes today and tomorrow are the next battleground, with the ad hoc committee, headed by Majority Leader Dick Armey, taking up Homeland Security issues next week.
Because Powell goes to bat for the bureaucrats in his charge, he will likely pull out all the stops to hold onto the visa-issuance powers. In trying to keep the visa-issuance function within his department, Powell may be fighting for bureaucrats whose livelihoods are on the line, but it’s American lives that are at risk.
Copyright © 2002, National Review. Reprinted with permission.
Visa Fraud, Uninterrupted
Qatar scandal the latest mess occurring on State’s watch
National Review Online, July 11, 2002
With the visa-selling scandal in Doha, Qatar heating up just as Congress is looking into removing the visa-issuance powers from the State Department, the logical question is: Does the current mess show why State should not have visa authority? In and of itself, the answer is no — but the answer changes when you consider the long pattern of fraud in consulates, and how State responded, or more accurately, didn’t.
Any government organization will have bad actors who cheat the system; the real test is how the agency responds. To call State toothless in its handling of visa-fraud cases might be generous.
In the decade between 1989-1999, federal authorities prosecuted only one U.S. diplomat for visa fraud, and that case resulted in a 1997 acquittal. An L.A. Times report three years ago found that visa-fraud cases routinely resulted in transfers or retirements, not prosecutions. To State, making a problem go away means just that — moving the "problem" somewhere else.
Although an egregious example, the case of Charles Parish is symptomatic of problems that still plague State. In the mid-1990’s, Parish was a first secretary and consul at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, one of the busiest consulates in the world.
Parish frequently overturned refusals of junior consular officers, and by his own admission, he received at least sizeable gifts. According to an investigation of the U.S. House Government Reform Committee, evidence shows that Parish also took in cash bribes and sex in exchange for the sale of visas in Communist China. But even before his alleged shenanigans in China, Parish had been under suspicion for visa fraud during stints as a consular officer in Bangladesh and Nepal in the early 1990’s.
Starting in early 1995, consular officers in Beijing complained of suspected ethical violations of their superior. It wasn’t until April 1996 that any action was finally taken. By that point, Parish had become so infamous that people were directed to seek him out by the Chinese media. In a Beijing Chronicle article that month, readers were told that in order to get a visa, "The ‘black’ one is easier" — and Parish was the only African-American visa officer at the embassy.
After 16 months of their increasingly loud protests being ignored, "junior consular officers complained en masse at a dinner held by the Embassy’s number two officer," the congressional investigation found. When action was belatedly taken, it was a one-man task by the Regional Security Officer (RSO), whose request for assistance from Diplomatic Security in Washington was denied.
The RSO found Parish’s office contained everything from duplicate visa applications (which was a no-no) to files on Chinese companies to statements for Parish’s own Hong Kong bank account. When other consular officers wanted to use Parish’s office, however, the RSO destroyed most of the evidence, not even conducting an inventory or taking photographs before doing so.
What was State’s reaction? Parish was shipped back to Washington, and given a promotion. But the bump in stature and money is not the disturbing part. Parish, in the words of a May 1997 performance review, was responsible for "handling the most sensitive visa applications, those from persons suspected of terrorism, espionage, or other serious threats to U.S. national interests" in the Middle East. A man who should have at least been thoroughly investigated, if not prosecuted, was charged with safeguarding us from terrorists in countries such as Iran.
Within this historical context, it should come as no surprise that 71 people, mostly Jordanians and Pakistanis, obtained illegal visas in Qatar over an 11-month period — and fraud was not even suspected until six months after the last illegal visa had been issued. Sadly, the delay in detection in Qatar is not a singular aberration.
Over a period of several years, consular officer Thomas Carroll sold up to 800 visas for $10,000-$15,000 each in Guyana, raking in over $4 million profit. At least 26 people to whom he sold visas committed crimes in America, ranging from disorderly conduct to gang rape. The only reason Carroll got caught was that he was dumb enough to tell his successor about the scheme in a pathetic recruitment attempt. Carroll’s case is not old news, either. He was convicted just last month.
Consular Affairs (CA), the agency within the State Department that oversees consulates and visa issuance, is unlikely to change any of this under the auspices of State. State has allowed an auditing process where current or former CA employees head up State’s audits of CA. That’s right — CA audits itself. That State finds this appropriate goes right to the heart of why it cannot be entrusted with United States border security in a time of war.
Even though CA chief Mary Ryan was "forced out" (in her own words in a conference call to the heads of the passport agencies yesterday), nothing is likely to change at CA. Because of Mary Ryan’s unusually long tenure of nine years at the helm of CA, the agency that gave all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists legal visas is stocked full of her cronies. Most likely, whoever replaces Mary Ryan will carry on the tradition of the "courtesy culture" and lax oversight that have provided an open door for terrorists.
The only hope for reform comes with congressional action to strip the visa-issuance powers from State and place them within the new Department of Homeland Security. Secretary of State Colin Powell is fighting this proposal to the bitter end, but the measure could still pass if enough there is enough public pressure to override Powell’s furious lobbying efforts. The fate of U.S. border security hangs in the balance.
Copyright © 2002, The National Review. Reprinted with permission.
Visas for Terrorists:
They were ill-prepared. They were laughable. They were approved.
National Review, October 28, 2002
On June 18, 2001, Abdulaziz Alomari filled out a simple, two-page application for a visa to come to the United States. Alomari was not exactly the ideal candidate for a visa. He claimed to be a student, though he left blank the space for the name and address of his school. He checked the box claiming he was married, yet he left blank the area where he should have put the name of his spouse. This "student" indicated that he would self-finance a two-month stay at the "JKK Whyndham Hotel" — and evidently provided no proof, as required by law, that he could actually do so.
Despite the legal requirement that a visa applicant show strong roots in his home country (to give him a reason to return from America), Alomari listed his home address as the "ALQUDOS HTL JED" (a hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia). Alomari didn’t even bother filling in the fields asking for his nationality and sex, apparently realizing that he didn’t need to list much more than his name to obtain a visa to the United States. He was right: He got his visa.
When he arrived in the United States, he connected with his friend Mohamed Atta. And less than three months later — on September 11 — he helped smash American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Alomari never should have gotten the visa that allowed him to be in the United States on that day — and neither should at least 14 of the other 9/11 terrorists.
According to expert analyses of the visa-application forms of 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists — obtained exclusively by National Review — all the applicants among the 15 reviewed should have been denied visas under then-existing law. NR’s investigation reveals that the intelligence community’s inability to "connect the dots" might not have been fatal had the State Department followed the law and prevented the "dots" from being here in the first place. We should now hope that our visa policy will be accorded the same level of attention that Congress is presently giving our intelligence failures.
Six separate experts who analyzed the forms obtained by National Review came to the same conclusion: All of the visa applications — 14 from Saudis, one from a citizen of the United Arab Emirates — should have been denied on their face. The six experts include four former consular officers, a current consular officer stationed in Latin America, and a person with extensive consular experience who is currently a senior official at Consular Affairs (CA), the division within State that oversees consulates and visa issuance. All six strongly agreed that, even allowing for human error, no more than a handful of the applicants should have slipped through the cracks. Making the visa lapses even more inexplicable, State claims that at least 11 of the 15 terrorists were interviewed by consular officers. Nikolai Wenzel, one of the former consular officers who analyzed the forms, says that State’s issuance of the visas "amounts to criminal negligence."
Some of the "criminal negligence" found in NR’s investigation:
— Hani Hanjour, believed to have piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, was denied a visa, only to conveniently change many answers on his next application — which enabled him to get a visa just two weeks later.
— Khalid al Mihdhar, one of the three terrorists who obtained visas through the now-defunct Visa Express program, listed simply "Hotel" as his U.S. destination.
— Saudi applicants received preferential treatment, with many portions of the law entirely waived and red flags ignored.
— One of the co-conspirators of the original 1993 World Trade Center bombing gained entry to the U.S. only because the law that would have kept him out was not enforced — just as it was not enforced for the 15 Sept. 11 applicants.
— The woman State wants to become the new chief enforcer of visa policies, Maura Harty, had not even reviewed the terrorists’ visa applications as of the week of her October 3 hearing.
The experts familiar with the visa issuances in question do not fault the individual consular officers who processed the applications — they fault the policies and guidelines under which the officers were forced to operate. Remarks Jessica Vaughan, a former consular officer who analyzed the applications, "The consular officers weren’t asleep at the switch. The problem was that the supervisors’ hands were over the officers’ eyes."
The visas should have been denied because of a provision in the law known as 214(b), which holds that almost all non-immigrant visa applicants are presumed to be would-be immigrants. In other words, the law says that when a consular officer reviews paperwork for a temporary visa, the applicant must convince him that the visa will be used only for travel, work, or school, and not as a stepping stone to immigration. The law is clear: "Every alien [except in narrowly exempted subcategories] shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for a visa, . . . that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant [visa]."
A non-immigrant-visa applicant has the burden of proving financial means (to show he won’t become a minimum-wage worker in the U.S.), ties to his home country (a spouse, a house, and/or employment), and that the stated purpose for the visa is the actual reason for the journey. "As the applicant, you have to prove you’re coming back. It’s not hard for a genuine applicant, but it is meant to be extremely challenging for an unqualified one. It is the cornerstone of the non-immigrant visa system," says Vaughan, who worked as a consular officer in Trinidad and Tobago and in Belgium. State’s deputy press secretary Phil Reeker has remarked that 214(b) is "quite a threshold to overcome." If only.
Around the world, 214(b) is the provision cited most often in denying visas, accounting for roughly three-quarters of all refusals. But many immigration experts believe that there are actually too few 214(b) denials, as evidenced by the 3 million illegal aliens who simply overstayed legal visas.
Defying the conventional wisdom that al-Qaeda had provided its operatives with extensive training to game the visa system, most of the applications were not completed properly and should have raised serious eligibility concerns in the consular officers’ minds — but the "comment boxes" on all but one of the forms were not marked with any reasons why the officer decided to ignore the warning signs. (The comment box is found in the upper-right area of the first page of a visa application; it is here that consular officers add notes about the interviews or additional documents provided.)
Granted, the visas should have been denied only on considerations other than national security, but if the law had been enforced, most of the 9/11 terrorists never would have entered the United States. Most of them were young, single men with no demonstrated means of support, and with few or no ties to their home country — meaning that they were classic "overstay" candidates. Given that visa applicants have the burden of proving their eligibility, this raises the question: How did they clear the hurdles the law is intended to put in their path when they were already saddled with forms that could generously be described as sloppy?
Our experts noticed a raft of problems with the applications, and several patterns emerged:
No visible means of financial support. For almost all of the applications, the terrorists filled out the "Present Occupation" field with "Student." Salem al Hamzi boldly wrote "unemployed," while Khalid al Mihdhar cryptically described himself as a "businessman." Only on three forms was the area marked "Name and Street Address of Present Employer or School" even filled out. In answering the question "Who will furnish financial support?" most of them listed "Myself," while the rest cited family — despite a complete failure in most applications to demonstrate the requisite financial means. The terrorists could have offered further supporting documentation in order to obtain a visa, but the consular officers would have had to note this in the comment box.
Demographic concerns. As 214(b) states, young, single men face a strong presumption of being would-be immigrants. All but two of the applicants were single, and none was even 30 years old. These two factors alone should have made obtaining a visa very difficult for any of them in any country of the world, all six experts agree. A seasoned former consular officer adds, "Single, idle young adults with no specific destination in the United States rarely get visas absent compelling considerations."
Unclear destination in the United States. On the visa form, the applicant must identify the address where he will be in the United States. The purpose of obtaining this information is two-fold. First, an address theoretically enhances the ability of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to track down the applicant in America; second, it gives consular officers a better idea of the legitimacy of the stated purpose for the visa. But only one of the 15 applications lists an actual address, with the rest stating locations with such specificity as "California," "New York," "Hotel D.C.," and "Hotel." Amazingly, one terrorist listed his U.S. destination as "No." Not one of these woefully lacking answers warranted so much as a correction by a consular officer, let alone an outright denial.
Missing and incomplete information. What troubled the six experts most was the startling amount of missing information — something that should have been sufficient grounds to deny many of the visas. At the very least, the CA executive points out, "The consular officers should not have ended the interview until the forms were completed." Which prompts the question: Were 11 of the 15 terrorists whose applications NR obtained actually interviewed, as State claims? Any discrepancies or apparent problems that were resolved by way of explanation or additional documentation should have been noted in the comment box. Yet this appears to have been done only on the application of Hani Hanjour. An unidentified consulate employee commented on Hanjour’s form: "going to flight school / wants to change status when he finds a school."
A number of the applications had other details that should have aroused suspicions, but apparently didn’t. Take, for example, the applications of the brothers Wail and Waleed al-Shehri. Wail claimed his occupation was "teater," while his brother wrote "student," and both listed the name and address of their employer or school as simply "South City." Each also declared a U.S. destination of "Wasantwn." But what should have further raised a consular officer’s eyebrow is the fact that a student and his nominally employed brother were embarking on a four-to-six-month vacation, paid for by Wail’s "teater" salary, which he presumably would be foregoing while on holiday. There is no indication that the consular officer even attempted to determine whether Wail in fact had the financial means to fund the jaunt.
Another warning sign that seems to have gone unheeded can be found in the paperwork for Saeed al Ghamdi. Aside from listing "HTL" as the address where he intended to stay in the U.S., al Ghamdi appears to have lied on his July 12, 2001, application when he checked "No" in answer to the question, "Have you ever been in the U.S.A.?" Al Ghamdi had been issued a B-1/B-2 Max Visa — which should have had a 24-month validity for pleasure and/or business — just ten months earlier, on September 4, 2000. Because NR has obtained his initial visa application, it is clear that al Ghamdi lied in answering "No" to the question, "Have you ever applied for a U.S. nonimmigrant visa?" If nothing else, the consular officer should have inquired why he had never used his original, seemingly still-valid visa. If he had admitted using the original visa, however, al Ghamdi would have been caught lying on the present form, resulting in a denial — or so one would hope.
The most troubling of the applications reviewed is Hanjour’s. It appears that Hanjour was the only applicant of the 15 who was initially refused — although this is not entirely clear, because the consular officers did not always circle "Issued" or "Refused" (as required by law) on the other forms. Hanjour had received a student visa in 1997 in order to study English at the ELS Language Center in Melbourne, Fla. On his first of two attempts to obtain a second visa in 2000, Hanjour requested a travel visa for the purpose of a "visit" — for "three years." An unidentified consulate employee, likely a Foreign Service national (a Saudi resident), highlighted the obvious problem with an applicant stating a desire to overstay his visa (the maximum length for a travel visa is 24 months) with an extra-long "visit." The unknown employee wrote in the comment box: "like to stay three years or more!" and circled the remark. That employee or a different one also scribbled something underneath about Hanjour’s wish to find a flight school during the trip. This application was refused — but only temporarily.
On the subsequent application filed two weeks later, Hanjour was armed with all the right answers. Rather than stating "AZ, Rent home" as his U.S. location, he gave a specific address, complete with a house number and street name — the only one of the 15 applicants to have done so. On the second go-round, Hanjour applied for a twelve-month student visa, and changed the purpose of the visit to "study" and the desired length of stay to a more appropriate "one year." But so many changes, all of which smoothed out rough spots on the original application, should have troubled the consular officer. "It’s never a good sign if someone cleans up his paperwork too well," comments the current consular officer stationed in Latin America.
The sad truth is that nothing would likely have triggered denials for the Saudi terrorists. The consular culture in that country was typified by the consul general in Riyadh, Thomas P. Furey, who was in Saudi Arabia from the summer of 2000 to the fall of 2001, and who is remembered by colleagues for his catchphrase "People gotta have their visas." Congressional sources confirm that the General Accounting Office, which is investigating the procedures used in Saudi Arabia, has found that the 214(b) presumption was turned on its head. Saudi applicants were presumed eligible for a visa, and consular officers needed to find reasons to deny visas. It’s not just that the presumption was shifted, contrary to law; it’s that even grossly flawed applications were treated as infallible. The consulate in Jeddah, where many of the terrorists’ visas were issued, refused applications for fewer than 2 percent of Saudi nationals in the twelve months prior to 9/11. The worldwide refusal rate for temporary visas? Approximately 25 percent.
This incredibly permissive stance may explain why the visa applications of the eleven terrorists who State claims were actually interviewed by consular officers were generally no better than those of the three terrorists who entered the United States through the now-infamous Visa Express program, which started just three months before 9/11 and allowed Saudi nationals and non-citizens alike to submit visa applications to their local travel agencies.
State continues to defend its decision to issue legal visas to all of the Sept. 11 terrorists by pointing out that none of their names were on the department’s "watch list." Without that intelligence information, claims State, there was little it could have done to keep the terrorists from entering the United States. This is simply not true.
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that most of the terrorists should have been denied visas on 214(b) grounds, State should have lived up to its responsibility under Visas Viper, a worldwide program that relies on local intelligence to identify known shady characters; it also should have developed a policy for determining which kinds of applicants should receive closer scrutiny. The senior CA official comments, "There should have been some security protocols in place in Saudi Arabia before 9/11. We already knew about Saudi involvement in other terrorist attacks, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Saudi Arabia turned out to be a hotbed of al-Qaeda activity."
Even without identifying known threats in the community, the embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah could have developed a profile based on available information about the types of applicants warranting a harder look. State should have known before 9/11 that strict enforcement of 214(b) alone would have kept out Mohammed Salameh, one of the co-conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Salameh "was given a tourist visa in 1988 despite the fact that he was only 19 years old, unmarried, and reportedly making $50 a month in Jordan," finds Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, in a recent report.
The situation in Saudi Arabia has possibly improved since Visa Express was ended in July of this year. Accounts are mixed, but some people familiar with the new visa procedures believe that the process is on its way to functioning as it should. But there is one big statistic arguing against this optimistic view: In documents bearing its letterhead, the embassy claims that its refusal rate for Saudi nationals in the twelve months following 9/11 is a mere 3 percent.
While it is true that the number of applications submitted is down by approximately two-thirds, it is hard to imagine genuinely tight procedures in any country allowing all but 3 percent of applicants to pass through. Nikolai Wenzel puts it more bluntly: "To say that strict screening results in only a 3 percent refusal rate anywhere — let alone in the country that sent us 15 of 19 Sept. 11 terrorists — is ridiculous."
Although many potential reforms have been discussed in recent months, the simplest measure that would provide the greatest return in terms of enhanced border security would be empowering consular officers to refuse applicants who just don’t seem right. Such a proposal would create a presumption in the law that the visa applicant would have to overcome by proving that he is in fact coming to the U.S. for the purpose stated on the application. Though this is like the authority already vested in 214(b) — and functionally the same, since visa refusals cannot be appealed, meaning that 214(b) can be used for a wide variety of reasons — it would give explicit power to consular officers to deny someone if the applicant simply seems untrustworthy or otherwise appears suspicious.
The only way to make such a measure truly effective, though, would be to protect consular officers from "courtesy culture" managers like Thomas Furey, by enacting into law a provision that says a high refusal rate cannot be factored against a consular officer in a job review. Only with that protection would a consular officer feel free to exercise his best discretion in weeding out questionable applicants. In fact, shielding consular officers from the "courtesy culture" might have helped keep out several of the 9/11 terrorists. Rep. Dan Burton (R., Ind.) noted in a July 9 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, "At least one consular officer informed the GAO that she would not have granted the visas to some of the September 11 hijackers if the State Department had not had an informal policy that all Saudis were presumed to be entitled to a visa."
State has shown little interest in learning what the General Accounting Office has discovered in its investigation. The GAO found that, as of May, the department had not even interviewed the consular officers who issued the 9/11 visas, including the officer who issued visas to ten of the terrorists. State is mum on whether it has talked to the officers since. Because of the department’s unwillingness, post-9/11, to uphold the law, the only solution is to transfer enforcement powers to an agency that would treat the visa power with the national-security importance it deserves. Although any new bureaucracy should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism, a Department of Homeland Security could not do any worse than State already has in protecting our shores from terrorist infiltration. The new department would have the distinct advantage of being able to make visa decisions free of many of the diplomatic concerns that have compromised State’s ability to act forcefully in the area of border security.
If the authority to control consular officers and visa decisions remains within State, the process will always be subject to political and diplomatic pressures. State’s inherent bias toward issuing rather than denying visas can be seen in the supervisors’ role in the process. Supervisors review only denials, not issuances. In lobbying Congress this summer to keep the visa function within State, Secretary Powell declared that the visa power was vital to State’s mission of diplomacy, because he feared that, otherwise, countries that deserve visas for diplomatic reasons might instead be denied visas on security grounds. Powell adamantly maintained that a beefed-up watch list and enhanced technology would be sufficient safeguards to screen out terrorists.
Powell’s argument won the day with the House, but Nikolai Wenzel is one who doesn’t buy it. The former consular officer warns, "All the technology and all the intelligence in the world won’t do any good if the will to enforce the law is not there."
Copyright © 2002, National Review. Reprinted with permission.