Open door for terrorists still open

Posted: Jun 27, 2002 12:00 AM
The agnecy that let in all 19 Sept. 11th terrorists should absolutely be a part of the new Department of Homeland Defense--but that's not the plan. The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA), however, has proven that it can't be trusted to keep potential terrorists out of the country -- or even to be honest with Congress and the American people. The Civil Service subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee is holding hearings on CA today. I will be testifying, in large part because of my articles on the topic in last week's Post and the current National Review. These revealed that CA, which oversees U.S. consulates and visa issuance, has compromised our border security in its quest to make visa applications convenient -- for foreigners. In the vast majority of countries around the world, visa applicants are only interviewed if they fail on paper first. Paper applications fail for only two basic reasons: poverty, or a criminal record, hurdles most al Qaeda sleepers can clear. Just a decade ago, almost everyone was interviewed at least once before obtaining a visa to enter the United States. But CA chief Mary Ryan has assiduously and systematically worked to scrap the interview requirement in consulates worldwide -- meaning more and more people arrive in the United States without ever coming into contact with a U.S. citizen until they step off the airplane onto American soil. And Mary Ryan thinks this is a "very worthy goal." "What's absolutely stunning is that even 9/11 didn't change the way consulates operate. It's still business as usual," fumes a senior CA official. It gets worse. CA is fighting against closing even the most glaring loophole in our border security: the Visa Express program, under which anyone living in Saudi Arabia, including non-citizens, can submit visa applications to a travel agent. In its first three months of operation, the program admitted three of the 9/11 hijackers to America. Since my articles exposed these facts, CA in the last week did just two things to the program: 1) it dropped the name "Visa Express," and 2) it changed the way the program was described on the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh.
That was it. A quick call yesterday to one of the participating travel agencies in Riyadh confirms that the program is still going strong, as the agent explained, "Don't worry - only the Web site changed. It's still easy to get a visa." Such deceptive "reforms" are par for the agency's course. To shield Visa Express from closer scrutiny last fall, CA lied about the visa refusal rates for applicants from Saudi Arabia. It claimed only 3 percent of Saudis were refused last year; in fact, 23 percent of all applicants in Saudi Arabia in 2001 were refused. CA only admitted this massive discrepancy after I had obtained an internal CA document with the true figure. Change will not happen from within CA; when the State Department's Inspector General (IG) audits CA, the inspection team is headed up by a current or former CA employee. That's right -- CA is responsible for auditing itself. Arthur Andersen got in a lot more trouble for a lot less. If it wasn't clear before 9/11, it must be now: Visa screening is the frontline of our border security. CA is a bloated bureaucracy trapped in the death grip of inertia, and it will not change, not even in the wake of the worst terrorist action in our history. The only solution is making CA part of the new Department of Homeland Defense. Hopefully, today's hearings will spur Congress to action.