- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

President Bush's proposed Department of Homeland Security should control the issuance of visas to prevent terrorists from easily entering the country, a House committee member said at one of several national security-related hearings yesterday.
"The fragmented arrangement [of the administration's proposal] where the secretary of homeland security establishes policy regarding visas but actual operational control remains under the State Department is not acceptable," said Rep. Dave Weldon, Florida Republican and member of the House Committee on Government Reform.
"We are all too aware of the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11 terrorists had obtained 'appropriate' visas," he said.
State Department officials said it is important for the secretary of state to retain the authority granted under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 to deny visas on foreign policy grounds. The department's Bureau of Consular Affairs currently oversees issuing visas.
"In creating the new department, it is also important to recognize that visa policy plays a vital role in important foreign policy concerns of the United States which in many ways also support homeland security," said Grant Green, state undersecretary for management.
In the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Bush's homeland security bill faced its harshest criticism yet when Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, told Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge that the president's plan would put the new department "above the law."
Mr. Leahy added that the plan threatens to infringe on congressional prerogative, exempting the department from the Freedom of Information Act, Whistleblower Protection Act and other laws that allow Congress to hold federal departments accountable. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, echoed his concern, saying whistleblowers are "an asset to government."
Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, expressed concern at a second hearing that "the department's lack of accountability threatens our nation's history as an open government."
"We will work with you," Mr. Ridge replied at both hearings. He promised to revise the provision on whistleblowers in Mr. Bush's bill in order to mirror language on such protection at other federal agencies.
At the House hearing, Nikolai Wenzel, a former vice consul at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City from 1997 to 1999, said the State Department afflicted by the inertia of "institutional and bureaucratic traits" has become too focused on diplomacy.
"Almost half of the estimated 6 million illegal aliens now resident in the U.S. entered the country on non-immigrant visas issued at U.S. consulates abroad," he said.
This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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