This morning the Washington Post released news that the State Department has been hiding from us for months: not once, but twice, State Department failed in keeping a U.S. visa out of a terrorist's hands. The Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had initially had his visa denied in 2004, four years prior to his 2008 application. In 2004, he applied again, and the initial denial was overturned because a supervisory consular officer decided Abdulmuttalab's father was too prominent in Nigerian politics and finance to upset the U.S. diplomatic applecart in that country and deny his son a visa. Ironically, this was the same father who four years later visited the U.S. embassy in Nigeria and sought to help the U.S. keep his son out of the U.S., only subsequently to have the U.S. decide he was not important enough to listen to.
The legal kicker in this visa story is that on Abdulmuttalab's 2008 application, he lied and said he had never received a prior denial, enough to deny him a visa under law and keep him out of the country. As the matter was "considered resolved," State Department did not look again at the 2004 denial when the young Al Qaeda operative sought another visa in 2008. Instead, he was granted the multi-year visa he used to attend an Islamic convention in Houston in 2008 and again for airline check-in on Christmas Eve.
This is incredibly embarrassing to the State Department. Despite State's spin on this "new" fact, what this makes clear is that: (1) the intelligence community was not primarily to blame after all for failure to revoke the visa, as it should never have been issued in the first place; but (2) raises – once more – a larger issue of the State Department's policies regarding visa issuance; and (3) whether State should continue to be responsible for the visa process.
The crux of the State Department explanation of the 2004 denial and 2008 visa granted to Abdulmuttalab is as follows, according to the Washington Post:
A U.S. consular official originally denied terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a visa to enter the United States in 2004 after finding false information on his application, but that official was overruled by a supervisor, according to senior government sources.
Because the 2004 situation was considered resolved, it was not revisited in 2008, when Abdulmutallab received a second U.S. visa, which allowed him to board a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, officials acknowledged.
An official said the incident was left out because the move to overturn the initial decision did not seem out of the ordinary. That official and others said that, in reversing the initial decision and granting Abdulmutallab a visa, consular officials took into account that his father was a prominent Nigerian banker with strong ties to his community. There was no derogatory information or suggestion that he had ties to Islamist terrorism.
Abdulmutallab first applied for a U.S. visa in Lome, Togo, but was told that he needed to apply closer to his place of residence in Nigeria. He returned to Lagos and filed an application that stated incorrectly that he had never been denied a visa, leading a consular official to deny him one.
Abdulmutallab's visa history was recently shared with the Senate Intelligence Committee and House lawmakers, who have been exploring whether the government missed any red flags and could have prevented the Nigerian from entering the country.
[Sen.] Grassley said his staff was briefed about the visa situation this year but was forbidden by the government to talk about it. He agreed to discuss it only after State Department officials confirmed the details. [emphasis added]
Note that State's priority to place potential political ramifications of visa denials as a top priority continues to be the case today, even after the Christmas Day attack, as I discussed in an earlier blog post about President Obama overruling the visa revocation of controversial terrorist sympathizer Tariq Ramadan. Clearly, the political status of Abdulmuttalab's father in Nigeria was the driver for overruling the 2004 visa denial. Without Abdulmuttalab's father, it is likely that the Christmas Day bomber would never have gotten a visa at all.
The State Department, as it has more than once since the Christmas Day attack, has defended its visa process as it relates to Abdulmuttalab. Yet it is mute on why the Obama administration did not include this key fact in its after-action report. Are we to surmise that State's twice-over mistake – giving Abdulmuttalab a visa that under law he should not have had, and then not revoking it when it should have been – was perceived to have potential to cause such an avalanche of criticism that State could suffer huge political consequences if provided to the public in the uproar after the attack?
At minimum, State may have been forced to change its visa security policies. Or, at maximum, State could lose the visa function to the international section of DHS, where consular officers could function in their own agency with a stand-alone mission that enabled them to operate out of U.S. embassies abroad without being subject to State's political pressures (where security is not the priority) and whose officers would be entitled to use law enforcement information in making visa decisions.
My hope is that Congress, hearing of State's underhanded abuse of facts, does not simply let it slide that State's visa policies continue to be too lenient, at best. Perhaps they will look again at the visa function State guards so zealously that they have effectively prevented DHS from taking the role in visa security policymaking that DHS holds by law. (The only exception being the hard fought-for Visa Security officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that supply law enforcement information to consular officers in only 14 embassies, a result of 9/11 Commission findings.)
If there is anything State knows how to do well, it is play politics. Perhaps Congress will finally have enough of State doling out visas for political reasons and then not revoking them – even with credible intelligence indicating terrorist connections! We can hope. Remember, it is not State's databases that are the problem; it is State's overall mission that places diplomacy and politics over security. Abdulmuttalab's visa is perhaps the most acute example we have of that to date; it almost cost us 290 lives on Christmas Day.