Continuing the State Department’s efforts to undermine President Bush in Iraq, Consular chief Maura Harty recently filled two key Iraq-related positions with people whose track records suggest nothing but incompetence—or worse—coziness with the House of Saud. Supposed “agent of change” Harty recently named a former top deputy of “courtesy culture” pioneer Mary Ryan (Harty’s predecessor who was pushed out last summer) to a high-level State Department task force, and then she chose as the consular chief for the new Baghdad embassy a woman who enjoys very close relations with the Saudi royal family.
Harty was a controversial nominee for the top spot at Consular Affairs (CA), which oversees embassies, consulates and visa issuance, because of the disastrous record of Mary Ryan, under whose watch all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists received legal visas—at least 15 of which would not have been issued if the law had simply been followed. Ryan’s tenure was further marred by a steadfast refusal, post-9/11, to tighten visa procedures—particularly in Saudi Arabia, where Visa Express (which allowed Saudis to apply for visas at travel agencies) remained open for 10 months after the terrorist attacks. It was in that context that State sold Harty as an “agent of change” who would fix the mess at CA. The tactic worked: the Senate confirmed her at the end of the lame-duck session last November.
To convince Congress that change was underway—and to grease the wheel for Harty’s confirmation—State cleaned house at CA, pushing out four of the top five executives in a matter of weeks last summer. One of those booted was Georgia Rogers, who shared Mary Ryan’s beliefs in lax visa policies and warm relations with Saudi Arabia.
But now she’s back.
In every major crisis situation, such as the current war in Iraq, State convenes a task force with representatives from all affected bureaus. Serving on the task force is both prestigious and extremely important for national security. Harty has picked Rogers to represent CA—even though she wasn’t even deemed good enough to keep her job last summer. If Rogers was sore about her abrupt departure, though, her compensation package for the current position should soothe any hard feelings. According to a State Department official, Rogers is receiving pay for the task force on top of her retirement income. A different official at State estimates that Rogers is making north of $200,000 annualized in total salary and benefits while serving on the task force.
Showing that the Rogers incident is not isolated, Harty this week also tapped Beth Payne—who one senior CA official says “enjoys a cozy relationship with the Saudis”—to take over the consular section at the new Baghdad embassy. What qualifies Payne to land such a plum post is unclear. For the last two years, she has sat at the Saudi desk at the Office of Children’s Issues (OCI), which is primarily responsible for ensuring the return of American children abducted to foreign lands, and she has returned no kids during that time. The CA press office notes that two children since October 2001 have been returned from Saudi Arabia “with Departmental assistance”—but that murky language notwithstanding, several of the parents of abducted children and a senior CA official agree that Payne played no substantial role in the safe return of any American kids trapped in Saudi Arabia.
The Baghdad embassy will not likely offer visas to come to the United States right away, but the determination about the appropriate time to do so will in large part be made by the consular section chief. For a long time after the smoke clears in Baghdad, security will be a major concern, particularly with respect to Ba’athists or even terrorists who may try to gain entry to the United States. Having someone like Payne heading the consular section there will exert pressure to initiate visa services as quickly as possible, and once established, to be permissive in the old traditions of the “courtesy culture”—not good news for our border security.
Even with these actions, though, Harty is not worse than her predecessor or many other top officials currently at State. But she certainly is no “agent of change.”