Jewish World Review July 30, 2002 / 21 Menachem-Av, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Just because you think somebody is a terrorist is no reason to keep him or her out of the United States, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Justice Department in a June 10 letter.
Armitage was responding to recommendation by the Justice Department's Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force that people who officials think are terrorists should not be given visas.
Believing that an applicant may pose a threat to national security "is insufficient grounds for a consular official to deny a visa," Armitage said in his letter to Justice.
Armitage's letter - one of several documents leaked to Joel Mowbray, the young JWR reporter who derailed Visa Express - indicates President Bush made a big mistake when he decided to leave the authority to issue visas with the State Department.
State's administration of the visa program hasn't merely been inept. It's been scandalous. All the 9/11 hijackers entered the United States on valid visas. Most of them were Saudis. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it would have occurred to people of ordinary intelligence that perhaps the visa program should be tightened up. But until last month, State continued a program which made it easier for Saudis to enter the United States. The program was cancelled only after Mowbray exposed it.
Visa Express was begun about three months before Sept. 11. Under the program, a Saudi could apply to a travel agent for a non-immigrant visa, supplying only a two-page form and a photo. The travel agent would then process the paperwork through the U.S. consulate.
In the past, most applicants for visas had to be interviewed by embassy personnel. But during the nine-year tenure of Mary Ryan as head of Consular Affairs, the proportion of applicants actually interviewed dwindled to about 20 percent. Consular officials never laid eyes on those - three of whom were 9/11 hijackers - who applied for visas via Visa Express.
Currently, it's Consular Affairs that decides who gets visas. It's the responsibility of the Immigration and Naturalization Service - now part of the Justice Department, but which would be moved to Homeland Security - to check visas at ports of entry, and to make sure that visa holders leave the country when they are supposed to.
Retired Air Force General Charles Boyd was the staff director for the Hart-Rudman commission, whose report provided a blueprint for the Department of Homeland Security. Boyd thinks it's important, for reasons of both efficiency and bureaucratic culture, to have responsibility for visa issuance and visa enforcement in the same agency.
E. Wayne Merry, a former Foreign Service Officer, agrees. "Visa officers need to know their job is law enforcement, not diplomacy," Merry said. "There is no reason why Homeland Security cannot both make visa policy and carry it out overseas."
President Bush has proposed giving the Secretary of Homeland Security power to make visa policy, but to continue to have visas issued by Consular Affairs. Both Boyd and Merry think this would be a bureaucratic nightmare: "This would merely replicate the current process, which has policy in Justice and issuance at State," Merry noted.
That Bush recommended, and the House approved this absurd proposal is testament to the power of the status quo over common sense. The State Department doesn't want to give up the job, but Foreign Service Officers don't want to do it. The task of issuing visas is delegated to probationary FSOs, who have little interest in the work, and sometimes to foreign nationals.
On July 10, Secretary of State Colin Powell fired Ryan after news reports of a visa-selling ring operating out of our embassy in Qatar. Insiders at State said Powell fired her to keep Congress from shipping the visa function to Homeland Security, as Reps. Dave Weldon (R-Fla) and Dan Burton (R-Ind) tried to do. If so, the republic has paid too high a price for her long overdue dismissal.
"Visa offices are our perimeter in the war on terror," said Rep. Weldon. "Terrorists couldn't shoot up airports or bomb nuclear power plants if they couldn't get into the United States in the first place. Consular officials have been asleep on guard. We need better sentries."
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