Visas for suspected terrorists?

Posted: Jul 23, 2002 12:00 AM
The State Department is fighting a terrorism task force's recommendation that suspected terrorists be denied visas--and this is the same department that wants to hold onto the visa power in a time of war when our enemies want nothing more than entry into the United States. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage responded to the recommendation by writing to the Justice Department that "[believing that] an applicant may pose a threat to national security... is insufficient [grounds] for a consular officer to deny a visa." No, this letter wasn't written before last year's tragedy; it was written on June 10, 2002, one day shy of the nine-month anniversary of 9/11. The Justice Department's Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force (FTTTF) made a very common sense request: deny visas to people who may well be terrorists. State refuses to do it. State has no ground on which to stand, as the Immigration and Naturalization Act clearly provides for keeping out people suspected of being threats to national security: “[If] a consular officer knows, or has reasonable ground to believe, [an alien] is engaged in, or is likely to engage after entry, in any terrorist activity” the officer can deny the visa to the alien. State's indefensible defense of suspected terrorists should come as no surprise when you consider that the department has repeatedly stressed the notion of "fundamental fairness" for foreign visa applicants. Even in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in our history, State believes that all foreigners should be treated with "fundamental fairness," even if that means issuing visas to suspected terrorists. State's response to FTTTF is in keeping with its reaction to my reporting on Visa Express in Saudi Arabia: it twists the truth and sticks to its guns in advancing the interests of foreigners. The law is unequivocal: If someone is deemed a threat to national security, that person can be denied a visa. State, however, finds the law inconvenient, so it intentionally distorts the law: "[I]f there are no grounds under the law on which to deny an alien a visa, the consular officer is required to issue a visa," Armitage wrote. This is simply not true. Under the law, all foreigners are presumed ineligible for a visa, unless and until they can prove otherwise—-as even Deputy State Department Press Secretary Phil Reeker noted two weeks ago. “Everywhere in the world, non-immigrant visa applicants are… ineligible for a visa unless they can demonstrate otherwise.” State is fighting for the rights of suspected terrorists to enter the United States at the same time that it is fighting in Congress to hang on to the authority over visa issuance. State has been successful in its Congressional lobbying to date by twisting the truth-something it does with great ease and regularity. Given that all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists came here on legal visas, nothing would seem more central to the focus of the Department of Homeland Security than keeping terrorists from reaching our shores in the first place. Reps. Dave Weldon (R-FL) and Dan Burton (R-IN) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) agree, which is why they're pushing to take the visa power away from State and hand it over to Homeland Security. State, however, has other ideas. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been leaning hard on individual Congressmen to keep visa authority within his department, despite State's overwhelming record of failure in securing our borders. Powell's lobbying has badly distorted the truth, and in the rush to complete the Homeland Security bill in a matter of weeks, he has managed to pull the wool over the eyes of many very good Congressmen. About the only thing that might overcome Powell's deceptions is public pressure demanding that State lose its ability to hand out visas. Powell has been spreading a dangerous myth in his furious lobbying campaign: that the President's proposed structure would actually allow Homeland Security to have a real say-so in keeping terrorists from getting visas. The "compromise" that several Congressional committees have settled on would do little more than have Homeland Security issue memos from Washington, leaving "operational control" in the hands of State. Operational control is like possession: it's nine-tenths of the law. If State retains operational control, it would be able to implement--or not implement--regulations issued by Homeland Security in whatever fashion it chooses. The entrenched "courtesy culture" that continues to sacrifice border security at the altar of convenience for foreign visa applicants would thwart efforts by Homeland Security to keep out bad guys, just as it has done to such attempts by the Justice Department. To this day, 10 months
after 9/11, State is still fighting proposals to deny visas to suspected terrorists. Since the Justice Department more or less now serves the same "regulatory" role over visa issuance that Homeland Security is scheduled (in the bill in Congress) to serve after the new department is created, State will be able to act as it is now, representing the interests of suspected terrorists. Only Congress can put a stop to that--and that will only happen in the face of intense public pressure to take visa powers away from State and put them in the hands of Homeland Security.