Three Saudis who were among the last of the Sept. 11th homicide hijackers
to enter this country didn’t visit a U.S. Embassy or Consulate to get their
visas; they went to a travel agent, where they only submitted a
short, two-page form and a photo. The program that made this possible, Visa
Express, is still using travel agents in Saudi Arabia to fill this vital
role in United States border security.
With all the hand-wringing over what could have or should have been done
by various agencies, it is both startling and disconcerting that Visa
Express has not come under almost any scrutiny whatsoever-—until now, that
is. In the National Review issue hitting newsstands this weekend, my
story on Visa Express is the first in-depth report on the topic, though it
also delves into the “courtesy culture” in visa issuance worldwide that has
sacrificed our border security at the altar of convenience.
An obvious target for Congressional hearings and public outcry, Visa
Express allows residents of Saudi Arabia, including non-Saudi citizens, to
apply for non-immigrant visas at private travel agencies. After submitting
the short form and photo to a travel agent, applicants simply wait to
receive a visa in the mail. Sure, the consulates review the applications
once received from the travel agencies, but aside from the question of
fraud, our field officers in consulates lose an opportunity to weed out
shady characters who appear fine on paper. Most Saudi applicants never come
into direct contact with a U.S. citizen until stepping off the airplane onto
One senior CA official describes the program as “an open-door policy for
terrorists.” Three of the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. through Visa
Express, even though the program had only been in place for
months at that point—-and that’s not the only reason the program raises
alarm. Take a sample month: The U.S. consulate in Jeddah interviewed only
two of 104 applicants, rejecting none. The month in question? The
first 30 days after 9/11.
Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that enjoys such privileges
when it comes to visas. In some other nations, partial versions of Visa
Express are available--but to very few applicants. Twenty-eight
countries—-almost all in Western Europe--participate in Visa Waiver, which
permits travel to America without a visa. Saudi Arabia, however, is the
only country with such special visa privileges whose citizens pose a known
One cannot fully appreciate the severity of this gaping hole in our border
security without examining the “courtesy culture” at Consular Affairs (CA),
an agency within the State Department that oversees embassies, consulates
and visa issuance, which made Visa Express possible.
CA is charged with a unique, and conflicting, pair of goals: to provide
public diplomacy on the front lines and to screen out potential
terrorists before they reach our shores. In the past decade, CA has done a
splendid job achieving the former objective, but it has come at the expense
of the latter. “[Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs] Mary
Ryan has chosen diplomacy over law enforcement,” complains Nikolai Wenzel, a
former consular officer in Mexico City.
Emblematic of the victory courtesy has claimed over security is an
internal 1998 CA cable titled “Courtesy and Communications Count,” which
goes to great lengths to highlight the importance of customer service, with
only fleeting references to enforcement issues. This “courtesy culture” has
been intentionally sown by Ryan in her nine years as the head of CA. She
continually stresses the importance of “fundamental fairness”—for
The manifestations of CA’s mission confusion can be seen in how the U.S.
Embassy in Riyadh explains that Visa Express was not designed to enhance
United States homeland defense, but rather “to help qualified applicants
obtain U.S. visas quickly and easily.”
During her nearly decade-long tenure as head of CA, Ryan’s most
notable—-and dubious—-achievement is the dramatic decline in the number of
visa applicants interviewed. “It used to be most people were interviewed;
now it’s about one-fifth,” notes Jessica Vaughan, a former consular officer
in Belgium and Trinidad and Tobago. The new policy followed at most
consulates is that an interview is conducted only if an application is
red-flagged, and thus refused, on the first check. An application can be set
aside for follow-up for a number of reasons, such as suspicious reasons
listed for travel (an eight-month vacation for a lower-middle-class Mexican,
for example) or the appearance of the applicant’s name in the lookout
system, a composite database of 5.7 million people on various watch lists.
Before a refusal can be finalized, however, the applicant must receive an
interview. Otherwise, no interview is required.
Ryan’s driving concern for the current interview policy is the system’s
convenience for applicants. Ryan explains that the intent of CA’s policy is
to “permit waiver of the interview when it is clear that the alien is
eligible for the visa and an interview would be an unnecessary
Even when CA does turn its attention to border security, however, the
agency is still stuck in a pre-9/11 mindset of keeping out people wanting to
get a job at a Quickie Mart, not people who want to blow up buildings.
Standards for getting a visa in any country are eerily similar to those for
getting a fancy travel package—-if you have enough money, you can get
either. No, that’s not an exaggeration—-it’s written policy. Applicants
are screened primarily by financial factors, not security ones. Outside of
having money, one merely needs to have a clean record, or at least be able
to slip by the lookout system, in order to receive a non-immigrant visa.
And unless someone’s name or documents raises a red flag, consulates don’t
have a shot to screen out an applicant with an interview.
Despite the atrocities of 9/11, the “courtesy culture” remains firmly
entrenched at CA. One senior CA official says angrily that consulates
screening out applicants “act as if the World Trade Center towers were still
The most disturbing elements, which I discuss in greater length in the
magazine, are the lookout system—-transliteration of Arabic names into
English is fraught with peril-—and the distinct possibility that Consular
Affairs lied to the public after 9/11 to hide the fact that the only country
in the world that enjoys Visa Express had a visa refusal rate far too high
to allow third-party screening.
Consular Affairs lied again this week, although in fairness, the person in
question could have just been clueless. In sworn Congressional testimony,
Dianne Andruch, Ryan’s deputy, said that Visa Express “has been shut down.”
Visa Express, however, is still alive and well. Quick calls to both Saudi
Arabia and Consular Affairs in D.C. this week confirmed that Visa Express is
still in operation.
Most current and former consular officers—-those with a clear head, at
least—-agree that Washington’s rush to “do something” won’t cure what ails
CA. Former consular officer Wenzel points the finger straight to the top:
“We can pass all the laws we want, but nothing's going to change as long as
Mary Ryan is in charge of Consular Affairs.”
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U.S. Embassy page promoting Visa Express: