- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 18, 2002

Amid the revelations of mismanagement at the State Department creating gaping holes in our border security, the Select Committee on Homeland Security in Congress is considering stripping visa authority from the State Department and moving it into the new Department of Homeland Security. Although putting Homeland Security in charge of key decisions on border security is the obvious and best answer, there is at least a compromise the Select Committee needs to consider in the absence of full reform.

Given that all 19 of the September 11 terrorists came here on legal visas, nothing would seem more central to the focus of the Department of Homeland Security than keeping terrorists from reaching our shores in the first place. The State Department, however, has other ideas. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been leaning hard on individual congressmen to keep visa authority within his department, despite the State Department's overwhelming record of failure in securing our borders.

The reform efforts of Reps. Dave Weldon and Dan Burton and Sen. Charles Grassley to move visa authority into Homeland Security have gained significant momentum, yet there's a snag. Mr. Powell's lobbying for the case of the State Department maintaining visa power has been badly misunderstood by Congress. The biggest and most dangerous misperception is that President Bush's proposed structure of "regulatory control" being in the hands of Homeland Security, leaving "operational control" with the State Department, would actually have any real impact. Operational control is like possession; it's nine-tenths of the law.

But, if Mr. Powell's lobbying can't be overcome, the Select Committee should at least forge a true compromise plan that would not leave the State Department in full control of visa operations.

There are three essential elements to a workable compromise: 1) grant Homeland Security meaningful enforcement powers to help prevent terrorists from obtaining visas; 2) insert Homeland Security into relevant areas of training of consular officers; and 3) create real accountability for consular officers in the realm of border security.

The most visible component of the compromise package would be a mandatory presence of Homeland Security in all consulates and embassies, except in the few places that process only a handful of visa applications.

Homeland Security officers in the consulates and embassies need to have the clear authority to review all applications before visas are issued, and should be required to screen all applicants within target groups. So, in addition to having the authority to deny whole classes of visas in any given nation, Homeland Security must have the unobstructed power to refuse individual applicants at the sole discretion of its agents in the field or at the direction of the secretary of homeland security. Finally, Homeland Security agents need to be able to directly interview any applicants they choose, putting an extra check in place for questionable applicants.

State Department officials hate the idea of having consular officers coordinate visa issuance with Homeland Security, but the simple fact is that even post-September 11, the State Department is almost single mindedly focused on diplomacy, which is fine, because that is the State Department's job. But that's precisely why the department geared toward keeping other nations happy should not also be charged with preventing certain people from those countries from getting visas. At the very least, having Homeland Security review applications and interview questionable applicants will provide some check on the State Department's preoccupation with diplomacy.

Homeland Security can also help tighten visa issuance by working with the State Department on training of consular officers. The current training for consular officers almost entirely ignores security beyond teaching them how to check names in a database. Consular officers could do a vastly better job in the field if they were trained in anything related to homeland security (such as interviewing) by, appropriately, Homeland Security. Given that consular training on interviewing now lasts less than five total hours, Homeland Security badly needs to step in.

But the foregoing will be for naught without accountability. Homeland Security needs to audit all aspects of visa practices that affect national security, and its agents need to have separate "homeland security" performance reviews for consular officers in their respective consulates that would evaluate each officer's performance from the standpoint of border security.

The administration has argued that the best compromise is one that leaves maximum flexibility for such coordination, but that relies on the State Department to be a good player behind the scenes something the State Department has not been, even in the 10 months since September 11. Protecting our nation's borders is far too important to be left to chance.


Joel Mowbray is a contributing editor to National Review Online. Email: jdmowbra@erols.com.


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