The State Department's spin machine

Posted: Nov 25, 2002 12:00 AM
In a front-page USA Today story this week, the State Department lamented that relations with Middle Eastern nations were suffering because of long visa delays instituted after 9/11. Nowhere in this article did representatives from State reiterate the importance of carefully scrutinizing who does—and does not—get into this country. Given that all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists came here on legal visas, State’s attitude that visas still need to be dispensed as quickly and as often as possible is at best suspect, and at worst reckless. Of course no applicants for a temporary visa should be needlessly hassled or delayed, but the simple reality is that thorough background checks take time. But that is not the primary concern of State. The State Department is charged with two separate, but conflicting, pair of goals: to befriend foreign governments through diplomacy on the one hand, while on the other keeping out bad characters and, yes, terrorists. Something’s got to give--and State almost always places diplomacy ahead of border security. Take the USA Today story, for example. Secretary of State Colin Powell expresses concern that tighter visa protocols make Middle Easterners feel “unwelcome,” but he neglected to mention that earlier this year when State was trying to push through visas quickly, some 200 people on terrorist watch lists were given visas because the full checks had not been completed. Although State is publicly spouting platitudes about its actions to strengthen visa procedures, it is quietly waging a battle to reinstate as much of the “courtesy culture” as possible. Most of the quasi-reforms implemented this summer—no changes were made any sooner—were only enacted under duress. A few months ago, State faced an increasing number of members of Congress fed up with frequent and inexcusable lapses in visa security--and Congress was poised to move the entire visa function to the new Department of Homeland Security. In largely symbolic fashion, Powell did two things: 1) he fired the woman in charge of the Consular Affairs agency who pioneered the “courtesy culture,” and 2) he promised to beef up screening procedures for people seeking visas, particularly in Saudi Arabia. The most tangible effort Powell made to strengthen border security was to end the program known as Visa Express, which allowed all Saudi residents to submit their visa applications to private Saudi travel agents. Even though Visa Express was responsible for three of the terrorists getting visas in the three months the program was in operation before 9/11, State kept this open door policy intact in the country that sent us 15 of the 19 terrorists for a full ten months after 9/11. State only ended Visa Express because the public was—justifiably--outraged. But now, a mere four months after Powell’s promise that his department would do a better job safeguarding our shores, State’s PR machine is trying to make the case that tighter visa rules actually hurt the United States. Although the general public doesn’t buy that argument, the media seems to. The media has given significantly more coverage, for example, to the damage visa delays have wrought on State’s diplomacy efforts than to the government report last month that did not find a single example where a consular officer followed proper procedures in issuing visas to the 9/11 terrorists. The General Accounting Office (GAO) study was harshly critical of State’s shoddy security practices in issuing visas, and found particular fault with the way visas were granted in Saudi Arabia before 9/11. What most in the mainstream media failed to report from the GAO findings was that “Consular officers in Saudi Arabia issued visas to most Saudi applicants [before 9/11] without interviewing them, requiring them to complete their applications, or providing supporting documentation.” Few in the media also bothered to tell the public that at most two of the 15 Saudi terrorists were interviewed before receiving visas—meaning that no American even talked to at least 13 of the 9/11 terrorists before they reached the United States. One has to wonder: why the disparate coverage? No one wants to unnecessarily harm relations with Middle Eastern nations, but keeping out those who wish to do us harm is nothing if not necessary.