State has by no means been acting as a rogue department in dealing with Saudi Arabia, somehow coddling a nation that various White Houses considered hostile. But the lengths to which State goes to pamper the Saudis is something largely carried out of its own volition. There is no better example of this than Visa Express, the program that required all Saudis (including non-citizens) to turn in their visa applications at private Saudi travel agencies, which then sent them in bundles to the embassy in Riyadh or the consulate in Jeddah. Visa Express was entirely of State’s own making; it was conceived of and planned for while Clinton was president, and was officially launched when Bush was in the White House. And in the three months it was operational before September 11, Visa Express let in three of the September 11 terrorists. But State did not shut it down. It took ten months—and tremendous public pressure—before that happened.
From the moment in early 1993 that Mary Ryan became head of Consular Affairs (CA), the division that oversees visa issuance, consulates, and embassies, traditional requirements for visa applicants started getting pared down (discussed in detail in Chapter 8). Partial versions of Visa Express—though not by that name—were implemented in various countries in the mid- to late-1990s. But nowhere in the world had State launched a program whereby all residents, citizens and non-citizens alike, would be expected to submit visa applications to local, private travel agencies. It was a bold—and untested—plan. Yet State chose to try out this ambitious project in a nation that was a known hotbed of al Qaeda extremists. To be fair, most Americans were not thinking about national security in late 2000 and early 2001, but State should have been. That’s its job. Khobar Towers, the U.S. military dormitory, had been attacked by Hezbollah terrorists in 1996, killing nineteen U.S. soldiers, and wounding 372. And State had ample information that al Qaeda was fully operational inside Saudi Arabia. Yet State went ahead in that environment with plans to launch its first nationwide Visa Express program.
Although State vociferously defended Visa Express when it came under intense scrutiny—claiming that it was almost irrelevant that travel agencies had been deputized to collect visa applications (and more, as it turned out)—the truth is that Visa Express was an incredible threat to U.S. border security. State’s official line was that travel agencies did no more than, say, FedEx would in collecting and passing on applications. This was simply not true. According to internal State documents, travel agencies were expected to conduct pre-interviews and ensure compliance. In other words, people with financial incentive to obtain visas for others were helping them fill out the forms. At first blush, this might not sound significant. But the average visa application is approved or refused in two to three minutes, meaning that there are key indicators a consular officer looks for in making his decisions. With a two-page form—one page of which has questions like “Are you a member of a terrorist organization? (Answering ‘yes’ will not necessarily trigger a refusal)”—a travel agent who handles dozens or hundreds of applications daily could easily figure out the red flags that are to be avoided. Armed with that information, it would be relatively easy to help an applicant beat the system. Visa Express also arranged it so that the overwhelming majority of Saudi applicants never came into contact with a U.S. citizen until stepping off the airplane onto American soil.
Apparently oblivious to the glaring security loopholes created by Visa Express, State proudly implemented the program in June 2001. In an e-mail that, in hindsight, is shocking for its gleeful tone, the deputy chief of mission in Riyadh, Thomas P. Furey, wrote to Mary Ryan about Visa Express being a “win-win-win-win”—with nary a mention of security concerns. In the e-mail, Furey notes that the program started with Saudi nationals—whom he amazingly refers to as “clearly approvable”—and then says that Visa Express had been expanded to include non-Saudi citizens one day earlier, on June 25, 2001. Visa Express also resulted in the overwhelming majority of Saudi applicants never coming into contact with visa applicants. “The number of people on the street and coming through the gates should only be fifteen percent of what it was last summer,” Furey wrote.
The four wins Furey boasts about? From his e-mail:
“The RSO [regional security officer, an American responsible for coordinating embassy security with local police] is happy, the guard force [Saudi residents who provide embassy and consulate security] is happy, the public loves the service (no more long lines and they can go to the travel agencies in the evening and not take time off from work), we love it (no more crowd control stress and reduced work for the FSNs [Foreign Service Nationals, Saudi residents]) and now this afternoon Chuck Brayshaw and I were at the Foreign Ministry and discovered the most amazing thing—the Saudi Government loves it!”
It would be easier to defend State’s creation of Visa Express if it had abandoned it on September 12, 2001—or at least had done so after it realized that fifteen of the hijackers were Saudis, including three who got in through the program. But in the month after September 11, out of 102 applicants whose forms were processed at the Jeddah consulate, only two were interviewed, and none was refused. When word leaked to the Washington Post that fifteen of the nineteen terrorists were Saudis, the embassy in Riyadh assured the Saudis that the U.S. had “not changed its procedures or policies in determining visa eligibility as a result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” And after my investigative story on Visa Express came out in mid-June, State’s initial change was cosmetic—literally. It dropped the name “Visa Express,” but changed nothing about the program itself. Only after a month of a full-court press defending the suddenly nameless program did State shutter it. And even then, it was not because it had realized the error of its ways, but because it needed to offer some proof to Congress—set to vote near the end of July to strip State of the visa authority altogether—that it was indeed fit to handle such a vital function of U.S. border security. (The gambit worked—Congress sided with State.)
After the program was sacked, officials at State “openly worried that Saudi relations would worsen with the stricter requirements,” according to an official there.22 If only they had expressed such “worry” about the wisdom of fast-tracking visas in a nation teeming with Islamic extremists.
Saudi Arabia, after all, is the home of Wahhabi Islam, and Wahhabi true believers’ favorite catch phrase is “Death to America”—well, maybe the second favorite, after “Death to Israel.” But look again at Furey’s e-mail. He was clearly—frighteningly—blind to this reality. He referred to Saudi nationals as “clearly approvable.” What he saw was a nation filled with people he believed belonged in the United States. Furey, in his e-mail, summed up his idealized vision of Saudi Arabia quite succinctly: “This place really is a wonderland.”
State’s obliviousness to reality—and security—had an even more incredible result: one of the ten travel agency companies contracted as a Visa Express vendor is a subsidiary of a suspected financier of terrorism. Fursan Travel & Tourism is owned by the Al-Rajhi Banking & Investment Corporation (RBIC), which is one of the alleged financiers of al Qaeda listed in the “Golden Chain” documents seized in Bosnia in March 2002 (detailing the early supporters of al Qaeda back in the late 1980s, after the Soviets left Afghanistan). RBIC was also the primary bank for a number of charities raided in the United States after September 11 for suspected ties to terrorist organizations.
RBIC maintained accounts for the International Islamic Relief Organization, the Saudi Red Crescent Society, the Muslim World League, and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth. RBIC also was used to wire money to the Global Relief Foundation in Belgium, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization.
Records recovered by Spanish authorities show that several members of an al Qaeda affiliate there held accounts at RBIC, and the terror cell’s chief financier told a business partner to use RBIC for their transactions in a fax recovered by Spanish police.23 And they were not the only al Qaeda terrorists who did business there. Abdulaziz Alomari, who helped Mohammed Atta crash American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center and was one of the three terrorists who received a visa through Visa Express, held an account at RBIC as well.
Because his visa application form—which was obtained by this author—does not indicate which travel agency he used, it is not known whether Alomari submitted his application to the agency owned by RBIC.
The founder and namesake of RBIC, Suleiman Abdul Aziz al-Rajhi, also started the SAAR Foundation, whose clone successor, Safa Trust (SAAR liquidated, but most of the same people and operations carried over to Safa25) was at the center of the FBI’s investigation into the extensive financial network of mostly Saudi-financed terrorist activities in the United States. Operation Greenquest, as it was called, resulted in the raiding of twenty-three different Muslim organizations’ offices, including Safa Trust and several charities that had bank accounts with RBIC. Although the raids occurred after September 11, the FBI had been investigating the elaborate financial arrangements—which regularly included SAAR—for years before the September 11 attacks.
Yet the State Department was so careless in choosing its Visa Express vendors that one owned by a suspected financier of terrorism became deputized to handle the collection and initial processing of U.S. visas.