If al Qaeda wants to strike on U.S. soil before the elections, it still has available to it a gaping loophole it exploited pre-9/11: Saudis? easy access to U.S. visas.
Despite supposed reforms implemented by the U.S. State Department, current statistics?obtained exclusively by this columnist?reveal that nearly 90% of all Saudi visa applicants get approved. To put this in perspective, applicants in most other Arab nations?the ones that didn?t send us 15 of 19 9/11 hijackers?are refused visas three to five times more often than Saudis. (State refused multiple requests for comment.)
September 11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed reportedly told U.S. interrogators that the reason 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis was because they had by far the easiest time getting visas. According to the 9/11 Commission, KSM personally discovered how true this was when he obtained a visa (using an alias) in July 2001 through a program known as Visa Express, which allowed all Saudis to apply for visas at travel agencies.
As troubling as Visa Express was, though, it was used by just three of the terrorists, since the program was only open for three months before the attack. Far more disturbing is the fact that Visa Express didn?t lower the standards for Saudis to get visas; they couldn?t have gotten any lower.
The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found in an October 2002 report that ?consular officers in Saudi Arabia issued visas to most Saudi applicants without interviewing them, requiring them to complete their applications, or providing supporting documentation.? Even before Visa Express started, 99% of all Saudi nationals were approved.
Following a public outcry, State shuttered Visa Express in July 2002, and also canned consular chief Mary Ryan in the same week. Congress even came close to stripping the visa power from State?an amendment failed by a single vote in committee?but the diplomats? department staved off those efforts by pledging reform. Lots of it.
State has made some progress, such as doubling the number of names on the watchlist and breathing more life into pre-9/11 programs to identify non-watchlisted individuals who should be barred from the U.S.
What State has neglected to do, however, is enforce the law in Saudi Arabia.
Because of a provision in the law known as 214(b), all applicants are presumed ineligible for a visa until they establish their eligibility. This is supposed to be a high bar to clear, and in most countries, it is. Just not for Saudis. That?s why nearly 90% who apply still get approved.
Eight of KSM?s 27 handpicked operatives were prevented from entering the United States because of 214(b). Yet the same law that kept out almost one-third of the original 9/11 cell was not applied in Saudi Arabia?and it still isn?t today.
If State wanted to get tough on Saudi visa applicants, they would have unfettered discretion to do so. Denials made by a consular officer are not appealable, which means a visa could be denied simply because a Saudi is young, single, and unemployed?the profile of the person least likely to qualify under 214(b) and the most likely to be a terrorist.
State, however, has shown no willingness to put security first. It vehemently opposed Congressional attempts to tighten Saudis? access to visas, and it only closed Visa Express under duress. Late last year?as originally reported here this January?the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh sent a cable to Washington advocating a re-loosening of restrictions on Saudi visas.
With 15 of the 19 hijackers and continued al Qaeda bombings and beheadings, the question must be asked: what additional evidence does State need before deciding to enforce the law?