A Defeat for Border Security

Posted: Nov 20, 2002 12:00 AM
Although Congress attempted to bulk up our nation’s preparedness for terrorist attacks with the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security, the Senate headed in the opposite direction last week by approving the nomination of someone who, as the chief visa enforcer, will likely do little to tighten our borders to keep out those who wish to do us harm. Capping a nearly four month-long controversy, the Senate confirmed the nomination of Maura Harty as the new chief of Consular Affairs (CA), the division within the State Department that oversees consulates and visa issuance. Harty was tapped this July to replace Mary Ryan, who was forced to “retire” after nine years at the helm because of CA’s role in granting legal visas to all of the 9/11 terrorists, at least 15 of whom should have been denied entry into the United States under the law. State nominated Harty despite the fact that she was a top deputy at CA when many of the visas were issued, and that she wholeheartedly endorsed the policies that promoted “fundamental fairness” for foreign visa applicants at the expense of America’s border security. But in Washington, sanity is not always victorious. Harty’s ascension to the top spot as CA is hardly surprising given that she has long been a favorite child within State. Last April, she achieved the prestigious post of Executive Secretary, essentially serving as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s gatekeeper and running his executive office. From that perch, she lobbied Congress after 9/11 to keep visa policies as lax as possible, and more importantly, she befriended Powell. This July, opportunity—in the form of a torrent of bad press for Mary Ryan—presented itself. Ryan was becoming, according a senior Senate staffer, “radioactive” because of the boondoggle known as Visa Express, a program where all Saudi residents submitted their visa applications to private Saudi travel agents. With Congress poised to move visa authority into the new Department of Homeland Security, State felt that something had to be done. To keep Congressional wolves at bay, Powell offered up Ryan as a sacrifice. Within two days of Ryan’s “retirement,” State sent Harty’s name to the White House. No other candidate was considered, let alone interviewed. The fix was in. Harty’s nomination immediately drew the ire of a wide range of conservative, family, and human rights groups, but the most formidable opposition came from two very sympathetic groups of people: the families of 9/11 victims and the parents of American children abducted to foreign lands. The 9/11 victims’ families objected to Harty’s role as a principal deputy at CA (from 1999 – 2001) who supported the implementation of the “courtesy culture” and under whose watch many of the terrorists received visas. They were especially troubled by her refusal to read the visa application forms of the 9/11 terrorists before her Senate confirmation hearing. Parents of kidnapped American kids felt that Harty did very little, if anything, to help them when it was her primary job to do so as the head of the Office of Children’s Issues, the division with CA responsible for reuniting American children abducted to foreign countries with their “left behind” parents.” The biggest indictment of Harty, however, is what she has not done. Throughout her confirmation process, she has not even voiced concern that her department still maintains mere suspicion of terrorism is not enough to deny someone a visa. Even a year after 9/11, State believes it needs hard evidence in order to turn down a request for entry into the United States—a practice that Harty supports. In fact, the General Accounting Office found that State knowingly granted visas to 79 people whose names were on an FBI watch list—in the 12 months after 9/11. Harty, again, chose not to criticize this frightening record. Now that the Senate has given its final approval to Harty, Congress must assume a zealous oversight role to ensure that much needed reforms at CA are actually implemented. Maybe Harty will live up to the advance billing given by Powell and others—but her track record does not exactly inspire confidence. If terrorists continue to exploit lax visa policies that are not tightened under Harty’s watch, however, the Senate will have no one else blame but itself for refusing to demand change at State.