Visa Express Derailed

Posted: Jul 11, 2002 12:00 AM
The first head in the 9/11 inquiries has rolled-—and it is that of Mary Ryan, chief of Consular Affairs (CA), the agency within the State Department that was responsible for issuing legal visas to all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists. And a program championed by Ms. Ryan, Visa Express in Saudi Arabia, is also on the way out. Although the exact details of her departure are disputed by the State Department, which claims she was “asked to retire” by Secretary of State Colin Powell, it is clear that the heightened public pressure on the activities of CA in the past month was the reason for her exit. Ms. Ryan has been the head of CA for nine years, and in that time she implemented the “courtesy culture,” where she has systematically scrapped the interview requirement for visa applicants in more and more consulates around the world. In Saudi Arabia, which sent us 15 of 19 Sept. 11th hijackers, less than 30% of those issued visas are actually interviewed—-and that's post-9/11. It’s quite likely that the timing of Mary Ryan’s exit one day before Congressional action was not coincidental. “This was Powell’s way of saying, ‘I can do better.’ This is a huge turf war for him [to keep visa issuance], and he’s playing for keeps,” comments a senior administration official. Congress shouldn’t fall for the head-fake, because the problems plaguing visa issuance go much deeper than just Mary Ryan, and the evidence for that is found on the soon-to-be defunct Visa Express program in Saudi Arabia and new reports of massive visa fraud in the Middle East. Bowing to a month’s worth of criticism of the program in Saudi Arabia that let in three in the Sept. 11th hijackers in the
three months it was in operation before 9/11, the officials in charge of the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh have requested permission to shut down Visa Express. A confidential memo from the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh Tuesday disclosed that within the next week, the U.S. embassy in Riyadh and U.S. Consulate in Jeddah will “move toward interviewing all adult applicants and toward eliminating the role of travel agencies in forwarding visa applications to the Embassy and Consulate.” Under the direction of Ms. Ryan, CA had established Visa Express in Saudi Arabia in June 2001, where a Saudi national, or someone just living in the country, was
expected to submit a visa application to a private Saudi travel agent. Sure, the application was then passed on to the consulate or embassy, but the result was that most Saudi applicants could avoid contact with any U.S. citizens until stepping foot off an airplane on American soil. Even though three of the 9/11 terrorists used this open door, the program remained in place right up to the present. On the day before two committee votes on the Homeland Security bill, there were multiple news reports of massive visa fraud at the U.S. Embassy in Doha, Qatar. As part of “Operation Eagle Strike,” authorities are investigating the possible illegal sale of up to 71 visas to mostly Jordanian and Pakistani men for $10,000 each. 31 people have already been arrested or detained, and authorities are in pursuit of 29 more suspected of purchasing the visas. The rest of the 71 have either left the country or are dependents or children, and are not wanted by authorities. Despite a mountain of evidence of repeated fraud and poor oversight of visa issuance by State, including well-known cases of visa fraud in recent years, the two House committees acting yesterday, Judiciary and International Relations (IR), voted to keep the visa issuance function within the State Department, instead of transferring the power to the new Department of Homeland Security. In a huge victory for Powell, the Judiciary Committee voted 18-15 to maintain the status quo that enabled all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists to obtain legal visas, and IR maintained State’s authority without a vote at all. Perhaps out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to the Foreign Service Corps, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) twisted the arms of several stalwart conservatives on Judiciary, several of whom may not have fully understood the legalese language of the Hyde Amendment. Several high-ranking Capitol Hill staffers are confident, however, that the vote in Rep. Dan Burton’s Government Reform Committee will result in a bill that removes visa authority from State and places it in law enforcement-minded Homeland Security. From there, the likely split between the House committees would be resolved next week by the ad hoc committee, consisting of members of leadership and headed up by Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX). Regardless of the final outcome of who will control visa issuance, one thing is clear: CA’s house must be cleaned, and Mary Ryan’s “courtesy culture” must be remade into one that emphasizes border security above all else. Our very safety depends on it.