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GAO: Agency spats slow visa checks for terrorists

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 21, 2011

A post-Sept. 11 security program to stop suspected terrorists from getting U.S. visas is beset by interagency tensions and a lack of clear guidelines for identifying people who should be denied visas, a congressional audit says.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, made public Thursday, states that more than half of the 20 U.S. embassies and consulates most at risk of issuing visas to suspected terrorists do not have a special visa security unit, nearly a decade after Congress set them up.

The legislation was passed after the 19 hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, were all able to obtain visas with relative ease and enter the United States legally.

The embassy security units are staffed by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), who are tasked with reviewing visa applicants for possible terrorist links or associations.

According to the report, investigators also found:

c State Department and DHS officials could not agree on "what degree of 'association' with a terrorist is sufficient to render an applicant ineligible for a visa."

c There was "significant tension between [ICE] agents and [State Department] officials" in the special units at some embassies, in part because of lack of clarity about their respective roles.

c Training for staff was insufficient.

c Standards or performance measures for the program were insufficient.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent and one of the lawmakers who commissioned the audit, said in a statement that the report "paints a very disappointing and troubling picture of the Visa Security Program (VSP), which is such an important part of our strategy to keep terrorists from entering the United States."

Mr. Lieberman also said he was "particularly upset" about the lack of agreement on the criteria for denying a visa. "Any association with terrorism should be enough to stop a visa applicant from coming to our country," he said.

A former senior ICE agent, William D. West, said in an interview that in discussions with still-serving colleagues he heard many stories from agents who did "encounter at various times resistance ... turf protectionism if you like, on the part of" State Department consular officials who are responsible for actually issuing visas.

"They felt that these ICE officers were in their way," he said of the consular staff, describing their attitude as that of "we don't need these [ICE] people here."

The State Department's consular affairs bureau did not respond immediately to email and phone requests for comment. ICE said it was reviewing the report.

"We continue to work closely to clarify the respective roles and responsibilities of our agents and the State Department's consular officers," ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein told The Times.

Mr. West said that interagency tensions - even on the issue of counterterrorism - persisted, especially at the ground level, "despite all the kumbaya from the political appointees."

"There was a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication" between State and DHS staff, Jess T. Ford, the GAO report's lead author confirmed to The Times.

Mr. Ford said that of the 13 visa security units GAO looked at, only two had proper guidance for staff about how the review process should work, and what role everyone had.

But he said DHS told auditors a new agreement with ICE, signed in January, would address that issue.

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