- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Up until last week, any inquiry made to the State Department about its visa policy for Middle Easterners was answered with the curt statement, "Since September 11, no change has been made in our visa policy."

This stubborn insistence that all was well seemed excruciatingly irresponsible to any reasonable observer. All the 19 hijacker-terrorists were from the Arab portion of the world 15 from Saudi Arabia. Of the 22 still-wanted terrorists on the FBI list, all are also from the Middle East.

The roster of visas granted to Middle Easterners is large, more than 250,000 a year, including 60,000 to Saudi Arabia, almost 3,000 to Iraq, 49,000 to Egypt, 14,000 to Syria and even a few hundred for terrorist Libya.

That the number has always been excessive and insufficiently checked was shown in 1993 when Middle Eastern terrorists first bombed the World Trade Center.

The lack of security has been endemic in the State Department system. Checking all the visitors who come here under B1 (business) and B2 (tourist) visas is impossible. State has only 900 consular officials handling 7 million visas granted to visitors to come here from around the world. This means that only a small percentage of Middle Easterners are ever interviewed at U.S. Embassies and Consulates before they arrive in the U.S.

If the previous negligence wasn't enough, it was multiplied many times over from September 11 on, as State refused to amend its overgenerous ways that jeopardized homeland security. Some government spokespeople, in response to concerns, even volunteered that to change their Middle Eastern policy would be "racial" or "ethnic" profiling.

Finally, after much haranguing from critics, including this columnist, on Nov. 9 in what should be viewed as a confession of error the State Department announced that starting this week applications from 26 muslim-majority nations from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia would be held up for males aged 16 to 45 while they were checked out on an FBI database. The entire process would take 20 days, during which time we would also check out a questionnaire filled out by applicants.

The new ruling was met with an immediate flurry of criticism that the government was exercising profiling. That charge is ludicrous considering that the visa program in every nation is based on ethnic profiling.

Twenty-nine nations, mostly in Europe, are now exempt from securing a visa at all to come to America. They just land here and can stay for 90 days. Those who require a visa, visitors from more than 100 countries, vary in a great many ways through profiling. Because they are ostensibly our friends, the Saudi visa, for example, is more generous than most, allowing Saudi visitors to stay, in 6 month pieces, for up to two years. Through "Multiple Entry," they can come and go as they please, allowing them time to fade in among us and construct a terror plot. Some visas can run up to 10 years, with student visas the most generous.

Finally, we are seeing some limited action on the student visa front as well. The FBI has been visiting 200 college campuses in the first true attempt to keep check on students from the Middle East, two of whom were in the terrorist group that destroyed the World Trade Center.

It's all a beginning but far, far from enough. The belated ruling from State is welcome, but it no way approaches true homeland security. The entire visas program is too large to intelligently handle. Instead of the 250,000-plus visas for Middle Easterners and other Muslim nations, we should entertain no more than 25,000. That smaller number would permit all applicants to be personally interviewed by consular officials and go through an extensive FBI check, not merely a database search, which is usually far from complete.

The student program is also excessively large, some 600,000 a year with 4,000 from Saudi Arabia alone. That must be cut back by three-fourths, enabling the FBI to maintain close checks.

In addition, we must realize that the new State Department rules selecting out young males from the Middle East are not enough. Terrorists are quite bright and can find giant loopholes in our new visa program. Why shouldn't they avoid FBI checks by sending in 46- to 50-year-old terrorists and well as women, now exempt from the new FBI checks?

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has done a magnificent job in building a coalition against terrorism, is obviously a tyro when it comes to homeland security. To appease some dissident groups, he has called his new program only "temporary." Why? Are terrorist forces disappearing?

We obviously need more resolve and less political correctness if we are to win this war against terrorism and maintain the freedom of our citizens.

Martin Gross is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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