Latest Terror Attempt Shows State Dept. Still Shirking Security Duties

By Jessica M. Vaughan on January 5, 2010

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 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.

As the investigation unfolds, it is obvious that the agency's travel facilitation/"why not?" mentality that opened the door for the 9/11 hijackers is still predominant at Foggy Bottom and in our embassies abroad. Just like after 9/11, State's response to this incident is to deny its failures and blame the intelligence agencies for not telling them 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 administration has yet to provide a convincing answer; Obama administration 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Yet visas have been revoked on sketchier grounds before.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 based on 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. State is inexcusably reluctant to act on its own to revoke visas, even though consular officers have the authority to do so (under Section 221(i) of the INA), and even when "dots" like a concerned father hit them in the face and should need no connecting. 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. Main State needs to adjust its message to consular officers and communicate that it's better to risk offending the foreign national than to risk allowing a terrorist to travel here.

Just as appalling is the revelation today 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.

Come to think of it, maybe they didn't need to look into that, because they already knew that the odds were very good that Abdulmutallab did have a visa. 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 issued nearly 60,000 temporary visas. The issuance rate for Nigerians, as reported in our 2008 report by David Seminara, "No Coyote Needed: U.S. Visas Still an Easy Ticket in Developing Countries," 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 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 the top leadership at State hopes 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.