- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

In early June, Attorney General John Ashcroft came up with an intelligent plan to fingerprint and photograph some 100,000 Middle Eastern visa holders a year to be better able to track them while here in the United States. The idea was particularly sound since of the 19 hijackers on September 11 all but one had come here legally through the State Department visa system, and 12 were still legally here at the moment of devastation.
The country applauded the attorney general's move, but there was an annoyed silence from the State Department, which sometimes seem more concerned about Middle Eastern opinion than the safety of Americans.
The State Department, under Madeleine K. Albright and now under Colin L. Powell, has a checkered past when it comes to security. Back in 1996, when Osama bin Laden was emplaced in Sudan before his Afghanistan adventure the Sudanese secret service, the Mukhabarat, spent years developing files on bin Laden and al Qaeda. According to Tim Carney, the U.S. ambassador to Sudan for President Clinton, the Sudanese offered the files on bin Laden to the United States but were turned down by the State Department.
Bin Laden, his four wives and children, including several members of al Qaeda, went to Sudan in 1991 from Saudi Arabia. There, he invested money in the country and started his propaganda war against the Saudi royal family, which revoked his citizenship in 1992.
But by 1996, Sudan had soured on bin Laden, and he was expelled. But the United States refused to take up Sudan's offer to give us its information on him. It even offered to sponsor a joint FBI-CIA tour of Sudan to show its sincerity. But according to Mr. Carney, the State Department would not even see the Sudanese ambassador.
"We can speculate that this failure had serious implications at least for what happened at U.S. embassies in 1998," Mr. Carney wrote. "In any case, the U.S. lost access to a mine of material on bin Laden and his organization."
The State Department record under Mr. Powell has had different problems with security, but some almost as serious. Prior to September 11, it was issuing visas to Middle Easterners at a rate too heavy for the U.S. government to keep track of them. Today, their numbers have been cut back somewhat, but there is still a flood of visas being issued to Middle Easterners, including those from Saudi Arabia, the home of 15 of the hijackers.
From Sept. 12, 2000, to March 31, 2001 before the World Trade Center destruction the State Department was issuing non-immigrant visas to Middle Easterners, not including Israelis, at the rate of 264,000 a year. Today, that rate has been cut to 128,000, still setting up a potential security threat. That includes more than 10,000 new Middle Eastern students studying at our schools despite an admission that we have not been effectively tracking them .
The answer is simple. We must cut off all Middle Eastern visas, except for diplomatic and major business contacts, until we have developed a full security system that works. Even then, we should keep the numbers very low so as not to create a new potential Fifth Column.
Now, there is another unspoken, unwritten threat. Our friends in Europe and elsewhere in 28 countries do not even need a visa to come to the United States, according to State Department requirements. They just step off the plane and are allowed to stay here 90 days without any restrictions. The al Qaeda know this, so they have started to recruit Europeans and other non-Middle Easterners of radical Muslim backgrounds to do their terrorist bidding. The first of these terrorists was Robert Reid, the shoe bomber, who used his legal British passport to simply board the plane from London to Miami.
Unfortunately, we can expect more of the same until the State Department changes its rules and starts to require checked visas for certain Europeans and others who might be suspect. This is inconvenient for British, French and others on the Continent, most of whom are legitimate travelers, but our security must come first.
In this emergency, we can never be too careful, a warning that should be taken seriously by no one less than Mr. Powell.


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