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Hijackers visa express program started 3 months before 911 { August 6 2002 }

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Homeland Security Department to Oversee Visa Program
Move Would Limit Role of State Dept.

By Susan Schmidt and Bill Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 6, 2002; Page A13

The proposed new Department of Homeland Security would take a strong new role in the issuance of U.S. visas worldwide amid increasing criticism that the State Department has handed them out too easily, especially in countries that are home to al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

As debate over the Homeland Security legislation heads to the Senate next month, a little-noticed part of both the House and Senate bills would give the new counterterror department some responsibility in deciding U.S. policy on who enters the country.

Many of the Islamic radicals who have committed acts of terror here over the past two decades obtained visas from U.S. embassies and consulates. Fifteen of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis here on visas they obtained from the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia -- three of them without even being interviewed by a consular official.

Critics in Congress and the law enforcement community contend that the State Department has been too accommodating to visa applicants, making "customer service" a higher priority than national security. They argue that embassies have used visa offices as part of their diplomatic mission, issuing as many visas as possible and making various accommodations as a courtesy to the host country.

"For the State Department, visas are considered first and foremost a device to curry favor with foreign governments," House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) complained at a recent hearing. "9/11 hasn't changed anything in the State Department."

The State Department contends it is already working closely with law enforcement and last year denied entry to about 700 people with suspect ties. The department has held on to its role as the agency that issues visas, but it has been on the defensive in recent weeks amid criticism that its review of visa applications in Saudi Arabia has fallen well short of rigorous.

Last month, the State Department announced the immediate cancellation of the "Visa Express" program in Saudi Arabia, which relied on travel agents to do some of the work processing visas, often without a personal appearance at the embassy by the applicant.

Mary Ryan, the assistant secretary of state who headed the consular affairs bureau, was forced out by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in July amid controversy over the policy for issuing visas. Ryan had come under fire for maintaining an open-door policy on visas even after the Sept. 11 attacks, as the rest of the government made national security its top priority.

Those moves came after a report by State Department Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin, who found that only 10,000 of the 36,000 people who received U.S. visas in Saudi Arabia last summer were interviewed by a U.S. consular official.

Ervin informed Congress that he has ordered a survey of 207 visa-issuing posts worldwide, with "special emphasis on programs that waive the personal appearance requirement and accept applications through travel agencies."

The U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert W. Jordan, cabled the department July 2 saying he was "deeply troubled about the prevailing perception in the media and within Congress and possibly among the American public at large that our current practices represent a shameful and inadequate effort on our part." He asked for more resources so consular officials could start interviewing "all adults" seeking U.S. visas.

State Department officials say they have been as aggressive as they can be under the law.

"A proper review was done on the hijackers," said consular affairs spokesman Edward Dickens. "We would not be able to refuse those people today, in the absence of more information. A consular officer has to cite specific provisions of the law. You can't refuse someone just because you don't like the look of them."

Three of the Saudi hijackers were never interviewed, but 12 were. "There is no evidence that anyone has presented that shows that an interview per se would catch more terrorists than no interview," Dickens said.

The White House has proposed giving the new Department of Homeland Security the authority to define the rules under which visas are issued. Under that plan, the new department would take over the legal authority to issue visas, but the work would continue to be carried out by the State Department.

The secretary of state would retain the authority to deny visas to applicants for foreign policy or national security reasons.

The House homeland security bill, approved on July 26, goes farther. Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) successfully added provisions to the House bill that allow members of the Homeland Security Department to be placed in consular offices. They would have the authority to review visa applications and order some rejected, and would give "expert advice and training" to consular officers on security threats.

The Senate also will consider language to give the Homeland Security Department more responsibilities. The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which drafted a bill that will be considered by the full Senate in September, has called for allowing Homeland Security Department employees to be stationed in consular offices, where they could consult with State Department employees. They would not, however have the authority to reject applications.

Currently, law enforcement qualms about suspicious individuals are not enough to halt a visa. Last month, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage rejected recommendations from the Justice Department's Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force to deny some visas.

"Unfortunately, the information we have received from Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force so far has been insufficient to permit a consular officer to deny a visa," he wrote. "The information we have received states only that the FTTTF believes the applicants may pose a threat to national security."

Consular officials have the discretion to reject visa applications on various grounds. They can decide that an applicant has not provided enough information for a decision, or that the individual may intend to overstay his visa and remain illegally in the United States, based on an insubstantial job history, family ties or assets in his home country.

"Very often if they're suspicious of someone, consular officers can find a category on which they can refuse them," Dickens said.

The Visa Express program was started in June 2001 by U.S. Embassy officials in Saudi Arabia to reduce long lines of applicants and take some of the clerical burden off consular officials. It relied on 10 travel agencies to review paperwork for accuracy and completeness, then send it on to the consulate.

"If the consulate never sees the person who gets the visa, it becomes more difficult to establish his identity," said Steven A. Camarota, author of a study on how terrorists have entered the United States.

U.S. embassies in other countries also waive interviews, he said, but doing so in Saudi Arabia is "inappropriate in a country where some significant share of the population is sympathetic to [Osama] bin Laden's ideas," he said.

Under the separate "visa waiver" program, citizens of Western European countries, along with industrialized democracies such as Australia and Japan, do not have to obtain visas to visit the United States as tourists.

Camarota's study of 48 terrorists who gained entry to the United States found that 41 were approved for visas by an American consulate abroad. Three sneaked into the country and four arrived without visas.

Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing arrived in the United States, applied for asylum and was paroled into the country because of lack of detention space. Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national facing trial here as a suspected conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks, came to the United States on the visa waiver program.

Embassies and consulates in countries around the world can determine the degree to which they will waive interviews. They often do so, Dickens said, to be able to devote more time to investigating the backgrounds of applicants who are most clearly questionable.

"We're reviewing procedures worldwide, not just in Saudi Arabia, to enhance security in the visa adjudication process," he said.

Nevertheless, "visa issuance should not be about speed and service with a smile," said Rep. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.), chairman of a House oversight subcommittee. "The principal focus of visa issuance should be national security, not diplomatic concerns."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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