Jessica M. Vaughan, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer with the State Department, is director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a research institute in Washington.
The tale of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian terrorist who nearly blew up a Northwest Airlines plane landing in Detroit on Christmas Day, reveals an alarming number of vulnerabilities in our immigration system that are still in place, even eight years after 9/11.
One of the most troubling is the State Department’s persistent failure to pull its weight in preventing terrorist travel to the United States. Clearly, the department’s travel-facilitation mentality that opened the door for the 9/11 hijackers is still predominant at Foggy Bottom and in our embassies abroad. Just as after 9/11, State’s response to this incident was to deny its failures and blame the intelligence agencies for not telling it what to do.
Much attention has been focused on why Abdulmutallab’s visa was not revoked, even after his father contacted the embassy in Nigeria to report his suspicions about his son’s involvement with extremists. The Obama administration has yet to provide a convincing answer; security spokesman John Brennan has lamely lamented that there was no “smoking gun” to support such a decision.
Yet visas have been revoked on sketchier grounds before. Between 2001 and 2004, State revoked more than 1,250 visas on the basis of terrorism concerns, even though some of the individuals had not been connected directly to terrorist acts or plots. Back in 2004, following a GAO report that pointed out serious flaws in the visa-revocation system, a senior career State Department official, Tony Edson, told a congressional committee of several such cases. For example, people whose names were similar to someone linked to suspected terrorists, or individuals whose physical appearance resembled someone on the watch list.
But these revocations were the result of recommendations from intelligence agencies such as the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. Judging from this case, embassy officials have become overly reluctant to act on their own to revoke visas, even though they have the authority to do so under the Immigration and Nationality Act, and even when “dots,” such as a concerned father, should need no connecting.
Even though the officers in the field clearly had enough to go on to justify the revocation, the message they receive constantly from Washington is to look for reasons to let someone travel, not to err on the side of caution. If a traveler turns out to be a threat to public safety, that is another agency’s problem.
Of course, visa revocations should be handled carefully, but the event is hardly a life-altering blow. Individuals whose visas are revoked can try to have them reinstated after being checked out more thoroughly by embassy officials.
The State Department finally announced on Jan. 5, 11 days after the failed attack, that Abdulmutallab’s visa had been revoked as a result of the president’s security review.
Just as appalling is the recent revelation that not only did the embassy officers not revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa, they reportedly did not even bother checking to see if he had one. Their lack of curiosity about the young man is troubling and suggests that national-security concerns are not a high priority for foreign-service officers.
Current visa-issuance statistics indicate that the State Department has slipped back into its pre-9/11 complacency with respect to the admission of foreign travelers. Global issuances have risen by about 35 percent in the last few years, from a low of 4.8 million in 2003 to 6.6 million in 2008. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security believes there are about 3.7 million illegal immigrants living in the country who entered with a valid visa and overstayed.
Contrary to what one might expect, the majority of people who apply for visas in Nigeria, a country with a global reputation for crime, fraud and corruption (not to mention illegal immigration), actually get them. In 2008, consular officers in Nigeria issued nearly 60,000 temporary visas. The issuance rate for Nigerians is 68 percent, meaning that more than two-thirds of the applicants are approved. The number of temporary visa issuances to Nigerians is up 40 percent since 2001.
Temporary-visa-issuance policies were loosened in the final years of the Bush administration and have been relaxed even further under the Obama administration. In September 2009, just days after visa overstayer Hosam Maher Husain Smadi tried to blow up a Dallas office tower, the Bureau of Consular Affairs issued a new regulatory interpretation suggesting strongly to consular officers that they should deny fewer visas on the grounds that an applicant might overstay.
It is no wonder that lawmakers like Sen. Joe Lieberman and former senior national security officials such as Elliott Abrams are again suggesting that the visa function should be taken away from State and moved to the Department of Homeland Security. If Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her top managers hope to avoid this disgrace, they need to stop hiding behind databases and globalist platitudes and start behaving like a partner in the homeland security mission.
The first step should be to install new management in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, with the explicit goal of changing the institutional culture so that consular officers abroad provide another layer of protection, not a gap in the defense.