- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

The State Department yesterday said that as of today it is ending its "Visa Express" program in Saudi Arabia and will require those seeking visas to apply in person and be interviewed.
The program is being terminated in response to criticism from Congress that it has allowed terrorists to enter the United States, a senior State Department official said.
"Beginning Saturday, which is the start of [the Saudi Embassy] workweek, all visa applicants will be interviewed except for children under 12 and Saudi diplomats," the official said yesterday.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy and consular offices in Saudi Arabia will no longer accept applications handled by travel agencies, the official said on the condition of anonymity.
Congressional critics, including Republican Reps. Dan Burton of Indiana and Dave Weldon of Florida, have objected to what they call "lax controls" over visa applications from Saudi Arabia, home of 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers.
Visa Express, which allowed 97 percent of Saudi applicants to obtain visas without interviews before the September attacks, had remained in effect through yesterday, albeit with some tightening.
Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, about half of all Saudi visa applicants have been interviewed and travel agencies have been allowed to handle applications.
Visa Express is one element in a turf war involving career State Department officials and members of Congress, who are now deliberating on a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security proposed by President Bush. The issue is where visa operations should go.
Mary Ryan, the chief of the State Department's visa division, retired last week amid congressional charges that visa policies remained lax, even after September 11.
Yesterday, the State Department said it had referred the cases of the U.S. consul general in Rome, Chuck Keil, and another diplomat, who had ridiculed Mr. Burton and other members of Congress in internal e-mail messages, to the "director-general of the Bureau of Human Resources for appropriate action."
Mr. Keil and diplomat Colombia A. Barrosse sent e-mails accusing Mr. Burton of McCarthyism for blaming diplomats who issued visas to September 11 terrorists for failing to protect America.
The e-mails, first reported in The Washington Times on Thursday, also speculated that the popular Ms. Ryan might be replaced by a "neo-Nazi" who considers State Department visa officials "incompetent or criminal."
Although department officials had said Mr. Keil would retire immediately, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that he could not discuss such details "because of Privacy Act considerations."
Mr. Burton, Mr. Weldon and other congressmen are urging that the visa system be taken out of the hands of the State Department and given to the proposed homeland security office.
"The State Department views the issuance of visas as a diplomacy tool and a cash cow that generates at least $500 million in fees per year," Mr. Weldon said in a recent television interview.
"The day is past when it should be viewed this way. The responsibility for issuing visas should be with a department dedicated to protecting our shores the Department of Homeland Security."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has objected to such a move, and the Bush administration has thrown its support behind a compromise in which State Department consular officials would continue to issue visas but homeland security officials would be placed in consulates and given veto power over their issuance.
Also yesterday, Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican, criticized the State Department's Foreign Service for "venomous behavior" in response to the e-mail messages about Mr. Burton.
In a letter to Mr. Powell posted Thursday and obtained by The Times yesterday, the New York Republican wrote, "Having recently encountered the venomous behavior and conduct of some at the Department I am saddened that it is still obvious that your message of tolerance hasn't yet filtered through."
The congressman was referring to Mr. Powell's initial call for tolerance within the State Department of congressional critics.
Two State Department officials were reprimanded last week for exchanging e-mails in which they said Mr. Gilman, chairman emeritus of the House International Relations Committee, was brainless.

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