Joel Mowbray

Now that President Bush is turning his attention to reforming the national security apparatus, one policy prescription not explicitly endorsed by the panel could prove to be one of the most effective: enforcing existing visa laws.  Though it sounds simple enough, the State Department has yet to reform meaningfully this crucial component of the war on terror.

The beauty of using visa policy is that no new laws need to be written; State merely needs to enforce existing ones.

The backbone of visa policy for temporary travelers, a category which included all 19 hijackers, is a law known as 214(b).  Enacted in order to limit temporary visas to legitimate travelers, it states that a visa applicant is considered ineligible until proving his own eligibility.  To overcome the presumption, an applicant must show sufficient ties to his home country, such as a house, spouse, or secure employment, to convince the consular officer he will return home.

How does this work to keep out terrorists?  The people most likely to be refused under 214(b) are those most likely to be terrorists: young, single, unattached males.  Which is exactly what happened before 9/11?but mostly only to non-Saudis.

Connecting the dots provided by the 9/11 Commission?s report, properly enforced visa policy dealt a severe blow to al Qaeda?s plot: Eight of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed?s 27 handpicked operatives were effectively prevented from entering the United States.  Six were denied entry because of 214(b), and two Yemenis personally chosen by Osama bin Laden also never reached our shores, because as the commission noted in a previous staff statement, ?It soon became clear to KSM that the other two operatives, Khallad bin Attash and Abu Bara al Taizi?both of whom had Yemeni, not Saudi, documentation?would not be able to obtain U.S. visas.?

Had visa policy been enforced uniformly to all of Mr. Mohammed?s 27 operatives, however, potentially at least 23 of them would have been denied entry.  The visa applications of 15 of the hijackers?those of the other four had been destroyed pursuant to standard procedures?were so deficient that none cleared the hurdle set by 214(b).  All contained significant errors and omissions, as the commission found.  Even if the applications had been completed properly, notes former consular officer Nikolai Wenzel, ?Each applicant fit the profile of a classic overstay and should have been refused on the merits.?

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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