Posted on September 10, 2004

Visa Scrutiny Called Ineffective

Shaun Waterman, UPI, Washington Times, Sep. 9

Homeland security officers based in U.S. embassies to help prevent terrorists from obtaining visas have no specialist training, cannot speak the local language and spend much of their time doing duplicative data-entry work, lawmakers will be told today.

A report that Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Clark Kent Irvine will submit to the House Government Reform Committee depicts a program mandated by Congress that has languished in the bureaucratic bowels of the new department — starved of resources, its management shuffled from office to office and staffed by officials often utterly unequipped for their task.

One of the so-called visa security officers, the report states, “had never worked outside the United States and was unfamiliar with the structure of an embassy.”

Almost none of the officers had language skills — only one of the 10 who served in Saudi Arabia in the past year spoke Arabic, the report says.

The visa security program — mandated by section 428 of the Homeland Security Act — was designed to ensure that someone was monitoring consular officers, blamed by many for issuing visas to the 19 September 11 hijackers despite provably false statements and obvious omissions and errors on applications.

The inspector general also found that thousands of visa applications submitted by Saudi nationals before September 11 were moldering in storage, even though embassy staff believed that — properly analyzed — they might yield the names of associates or co-conspirators of the hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudis.

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States found that several al Qaeda terrorists tried to get into the United States to take part in the plot, but were denied visas or were refused entry.

Section 428 mandated that officials be sent to Saudi Arabia immediately, and left Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to decide whether there was a need to place them elsewhere.

But there was little evidence that the presence of these officials in Saudi Arabia was making any difference, the report found, because the officials initially spent most of their time re-entering into Department of Homeland Security computers data that already had been entered into State Department systems, because the networks were incompatible.

“Assigning officers to overseas locations to repeat data entry of information already collected and transmitted to Washington, D.C. by . . . consular officers is not an efficient use of [department] resources,” the report concludes.

Moreover, the report found that the officers in Saudi Arabia spent “a significant amount of time reviewing applications of little homeland security interest, such as those of children, certain third-country nationals, or aliens already denied visas.”

The September 11 commission looked in detail at the issue of terrorist travel, and recommended the establishment of a centralized database of information about people applying for visas or traveling to the United States.

“What is missing from this picture [in the report] is any information about terrorist travel techniques, and anyone trained to exploit it,” Susan Ginsburg, a former member of the commission’s staff who led its investigation of how the hijackers penetrated U.S. immigration.

“You need people with security clearances and access to secret intelligence about terrorist travel who can spot the indicators in travel documents.”