- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 10, 2002

The State Department has a policy to approve a visa for any Saudi national unless it already has a specific reason to deny that person entry to the United States, Congress learned yesterday.
Staffers of the House Government Reform Committee also learned yesterday that neither the State Department nor any law-enforcement agency has questioned the employees who granted visas to several September 11 hijackers about their decision to issue the documents.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the September 11 attacks were Saudis. All the hijackers including two men from the United Arab Emirates and one each from Lebanon and Egypt had entered the United States legally with visas.
The new information prompted a letter from committee Chairman Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, asking that committee staffers who have been investigating visa practices be able to interview the consular officers who issued those 19 visas.
The letter was faxed late last night, and a State Department spokesman declined to comment.
"I am deeply disturbed by both of these allegations," Mr. Burton said in the letter obtained by The Washington Times.
Committee staffers learned of the Saudi rule and the lack of interviews during a private briefing with the General Accounting Office yesterday.
GAO staff traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in May and interviewed several employees at the U.S. embassies there, including the consular officers who issued visas to several of the September 11 hijackers.
"GAO staff informed my staff that when they interviewed these embassy personnel, they were the first persons who had ever questioned them about their decisions to issue visas to the September 11 hijackers," Mr. Burton said.
"Moreover, it is my understanding that at least one consular officer informed the GAO that she would not have granted visas to some of the September 11 hijackers if the State Department had not had an informal policy that all Saudis were presumed to be entitled to a visa," Mr. Burton said.
The committee also has found that a separate State Department program, called Visa Express, has not been shut down in Saudi Arabia, as previously reported.
"After publicly claiming that Visa Express had been 'shut down,' the State Department now admits that the program is still up and running, and that only 45 percent of Saudi visa applicants are being interviewed," Mr. Burton said in a separate letter to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican.
The express program allows Saudis to obtain visas through their travel agents, unless called in for an interview by a consular officer. As a result, most Saudis can get their visa with neither an investigation nor a meeting with a U.S. official.
This program was used by three of the September 11 hijackers.
"The State Department still refuses to admit that there is any problem with the program," Mr. Burton said.
Mr. Burton said that if the GAO reports are true, the State Department is unfit to issue visas and that the program should be moved to the Department of Homeland Security.
In the letter to Mr. Armey, Mr. Burton said he plans to preserve President Bush's requested framework for the new department when the bill to establish the department comes before his committee tomorrow, but with the provision that the visa function be transferred to Homeland Security.
"Our first line of defense against terrorism is our ability to control entrance into the United States. There is no doubt that with better intelligence and better training, we can do a better job of screening out potential terrorists in the visa process. That is why I believe it is so important to move the visa issuance function to the Department of Homeland Security," Mr. Burton said.
Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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