- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Attorney General John Ashcroft should be congratulated for detaining 700 terrorist suspects including at least 10 linked to al Qaeda, bin

Laden's terror network.

But just as we round up some, more terrorists are entering America each day part of a Washington bureaucratic oversight which may well border on negligence, or worse.

First, we should understand that the 19 suicide terrorists who destroyed the Trade Center were not immigrants to the Unites States, people who are thoroughly checked. No, most came here on the State Department's over-liberal visa program, which admits foreigners for tourism, business and schooling for anywhere from a month to five years.

Citizens of 29 nations, mainly Europeans, can come here without a visa just as we do when we visit Europe. But many other foreign nationals require a State Department visa issued by the National Visa Center. Of these, some quarter of a million were granted to Middle Easterners the source of our present terrorist population.

Visitors apply at our overworked, underfinanced embassies and consulates overseas, where local foreigners do most of the background screening. The most generous visa is granted to citizens of Saudi Arabia, ostensibly our friend. It is for "Multiple Use," and valid for two years. It enables them to travel anywhere in the United States, even back and forth to Saudi Arabia.

Most of the terrorists did not smuggle themselves into our nation. They just stepped off a plane, presented their legal visas at U.S. Customs, then were met by fellow terrorists and faded into the national landscape.

Of the 19 terrorists, a total of 15 were carrying visas from Saudi Arabia, according to information from a knowledgeable government source. One, a non-German, was carrying a visa issued at our embassy in Berlin. Two were from the Gulf States, and one was of unknown origin. Two of the 19 were believed to be here on student visas, learning not academics, but how to kill Americans.

How many visas F1 for college students, M1 for vocational study, B1 for business and B2 for tourism do we give out each year to virtually unchecked Saudis? No less than 60,508, including 4,038 students. Not only that, but according to the Consular Service of the State Department, that roster is not fully subscribed. It is relatively easy to obtain the generous Saudi visa to come to America.

What about other Middle Eastern nations? Can their people come here? Absolutely.

Last year, 14,344 visas were granted to Syrians, 48,883 to Egyptians, 2,993 to Iraqis, 6,685 to Algerians and 445 to Libyans. Even Afghans were permitted to come here legally.

But surely this easy entry by potential Middle Eastern terrorists has been cut off, reduced, amended, fixed since Sept. 11. Surely, no one in his right mind would continue to permit such easy access to America from potential terrorists.

"Since Sept. 11, there has been absolutely no change in our visa programs," states a spokesperson for the National Visa Center of the State Department, adding that "the same laws and regulations regarding visas in effect prior to Sept. 11 are still in effect."

What does that mean? It sounds incredible, but if true and there is no reason to doubt the State Department it means we are still admitting Middle Easterners, including potential terrorists, in the same number. It means every plane that lands at Kennedy International Airport or Dulles, or elsewhere, may be bringing in new terrorists carrying legal visas to replace those Mr. Ashcroft has detained or arrested.

What can we do about this bureaucratic madness?

Simple. Cut the visa quota for all Middle Eastern and Arab nations by 90 percent so we have to handle only 25,000 people, not the present 250,000. With that smaller number, our own FBI and CIA agents in embassies overseas will not have to rely on local people, and can do a thorough background check of each applicant. Each visa issued should include the subject's fingerprints so he can be better tracked if necessary.

But isn't this ethnic profiling, something askew from the American ideal?

Of course it is, and rightly so. No foreigner has the right to come to America, especially to commit mayhem. But we have the right to prevent terrorism as our government stresses. One important way a course we must take is to reduce our present ludicrous hospitality to potential foreign extremists.

After all, it's only a matter of life and death.

Martin Gross is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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