- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

The head of the State Department's consular service has been asked to retire after it was reported that 71 U.S. visas were sold for $10,000 each at a U.S. consulate in the Persian Gulf and amid criticism that U.S. visa policy for Saudi citizens has been lax.

Three of the men who purportedly bought visas at the U.S. Consulate in Doha, Qatar, are linked to al Qaeda, and the FBI is investigating the others to determine whether there are more links to the terrorist organization, officials said.

Mary Ryan, the most senior diplomat in the Foreign Service, was asked by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to retire, and she will do so in the fall, State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker said yesterday.

Ms. Ryan, who has been in the Foreign Service for 36 years, was appointed assistant secretary of state for consular affairs during President Clinton's administration in 1993 and holds the rank of career ambassador, a civilian equivalent to a four-star general, Mr. Reeker said.

Her retirement announcement came as two congressional panels yesterday successfully resisted an attempt to transfer control of the visa system to the Homeland Security Department.

Several House Republicans, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, said the State Department was lax and set up to "curry favor with foreign governments" by enabling large numbers of their residents into the United States.

But the Judiciary and International Relations committees voted to include Homeland Security personnel in U.S. foreign posts to check for suspected terrorists, leaving the State Department with primary responsibility for issuing visas.

The three men with suspected al Qaeda links are among 31 visa recipients detained by federal authorities since June 24, including Ramsi al Shannaq, who was indicted for visa fraud in Baltimore yesterday and could face 10 years in jail.

Mr. Shannaq was a roommate in Alexandria of hijackers Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Hamzi who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on September 11.

Federal authorities continue to search for 29 others who obtained the apparently fraudulent visas. Another six are believed to have left the United States, and five wives and children of visa recipients were released, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The visa-fraud investigation was first reported by United Press International on Tuesday and published in yesterday's editions of The Washington Times.

The visas were issued between July 2000 and May 2001 to "third-country nationals" not Qataris at the Doha consulate. The recipients were 39 Jordanians, 28 Pakistanis, one Syrian and three Bangladeshis, the officials said.

Some of the applicants, such as Mr. Shannaq, apparently were "visa shopping," seeking a U.S. consulate with easier controls after having been rejected by others. In Doha, they found a consulate where they could pay from $10,000 to $13,000 to obtain a visa, U.S. officials said.

"Seven individuals say they paid [about $10,000] but did not say they paid to the embassy," one State Department official said. The apparent frauds were discovered about six months ago. Searches of consulate records revealed that all paperwork for the 71 cases had disappeared.

"They don't exist," said one State Department official of the paper applications. He did not rule out that the documents had been removed after the visas were issued.

There was no record the visa recipients signed the visitors log, which would indicate they had appeared for interviews or to pick up their visas. Nor were there records to indicate that any receipts were issued for standard visa fees.

The Diplomatic Security arm of the State Department, along with the FBI, is investigating the apparent fraud. A Jordanian former employee at the consulate, now living in Jordan, is cooperating in the investigation, the officials said. No State Department employee, American or foreign, has been arrested.

The State Department took issue with a story in yesterday's editions of The Washington Times reporting that the State Department "has a policy to approve a visa for any Saudi national unless it has a specific reason to deny that person entry to the United States."

Mr. Reeker said he "disputes" the report, which was based on a General Accounting Office investigation. "Every applicant must overcome an assumption they are intending to immigrate," Mr. Reeker said.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who killed about 3,000 people in New York and at the Pentagon were Saudi nationals who obtained legal U.S. visas.

The State Department spokesman yesterday declined to say, as have other department officials, that the department failed to protect the country from the September 11 attacks by issuing those visas.

The State Department insists it had no basis on which to reject the applications because of an absence of disqualifying information. Mr. Reeker denied assertions that lax policies allow Saudis to obtain visas without undergoing interviews or sufficient scrutiny.

However, he said, Saudis still can apply for visas through their travel agencies, rather than applying in person before U.S. consular officials. He said, however, that the term for that system "Saudi Visa Express" has been scrapped.

Since September 11, when policies were changed, 92 percent of Saudis who are of the age and sex group likely to include terrorists are interviewed before getting visas, Mr. Reeker said. All visa applicant names are checked against names in a database that has been doubled in size, including people listed by U.S. intelligence agencies as having links to terrorists, he said.

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