On what may be the eve of a war with Iraq, the State Department
is still issuing nonimmigrant visas allowing citizens of Iraq and other
terror-sponsoring states to visit the United States.
Between June 1 and Feb. 23, says the State Department, it issued
more than 19,000 visas to citizens of the seven countries the department
lists as states that sponsor terrorism. More than 11,000 of these visas were
issued to citizens of the five terror-sponsoring states in the Middle
East -- including 5,849 to Iranians, 3,673 to Syrians, 1,042 to Iraqis,
1,037 to Sudanese, and 188 to Libyans.
In addition, 7,281 went to citizens of Cuba, and 375 to citizens
of North Korea.
These terror-state visas continue to be issued even though
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Robert S. Mueller recently
reaffirmed that "terrorists and their state sponsors have emerged as the
primary threat to our security."
Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 11,
Mueller said, "The seven countries designated as State Sponsors of
Terrorism -- Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Cuba and North Korea -- remain
active in the U.S. and continue to support terrorist groups that have
Mueller said, "The greatest threat is from al Qaeda cells in the
U.S. that have not been identified." But they are not the only threat.
"Baghdad," he said, "has the capability and, we presume, the
will to use biological, chemical or radiological weapons against U.S.
domestic targets in the event of a U.S. invasion."
"I am particularly concerned," he said, "about loosely
affiliated terrorists and lone offenders, which are inherently difficult to
interdict given the anonymity of individuals that maintain limited or no
links to established terrorist groups but act out of sympathy with a larger
In May, Congress passed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa
Entry Reform Act on the theory it was addressing this issue. The law said,
"No nonimmigrant visa . . . shall be issued to any alien from a country that
is a state sponsor of terrorism unless the Secretary of State determines, in
consultation with the Attorney General and the heads of other appropriate
agencies, that such alien does not pose a threat to the safety or national
security of the United States."
A State Department official described how this has been put into
practice. All citizens of terror-sponsoring states are interviewed by U.S.
consular officers and required to fill out a "supplemental" visa application
called a DS-157. The information gleaned is sent to Washington, D.C., where
it is circulated among federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. If
adverse information about the applicant is discovered by one of these
agencies -- e.g., he is linked to criminal or terrorist activity -- the visa
is denied. If not, and the applicant meets all the requirements he would
have to meet if he were from any other state, the visa is approved.
The rub: If a terrorist is not already on the radar screen of a
U.S. intelligence or law enforcement agency, he is not likely to be screened
out by this system.
The State Department's new form -- the DS-157 -- will catch the
scrupulously honest or gullible terrorists. I downloaded a copy from the Web
site of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria. Question 14 asks applicants to
check either the "yes" or "no" box next to this question: "Do you have any
specialized skills or training, including firearms, explosives, nuclear,
biological, or chemical experience?" Next to the little answer boxes, it
says: "If YES, please explain."
Wonder how Mohammed Atta would have answered that one?
To be fair, State shoulders a daunting burden. It must process
visa applicants not only from terror-sponsoring states but also from other
Middle Eastern states not listed as terror-sponsors. Joseph D'Agostino, my
Human Events colleague, reported in September that in the year following the
9-11 attacks, State issued 125,700 nonimmigrant visas to citizens of all
Middle Eastern countries excluding Israel. Of those, 17,237 went to Saudi
Arabians, and 20,206 went to Egyptians -- the two countries that produced
the 9-11 hijackers.
Surely, most visitors from terror-sponsoring states are good
people -- and, in the case of the Iraqis at least, a State Department
official says many likely have been living outside their country for some
time. But the question for U.S. policymakers should be: Does whatever
benefit we get from allowing these good people to visit in the midst of the
war on terrorism outweigh the risk that a few terrorists might slip in with