- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

Conservative lawmakers have moved to block the nomination of Maura Harty as the nation's top visa and consular official amid criticism that she failed to help American children trapped overseas in custody disputes.
Ms. Harty, a career diplomat who has had postings in Mexico, Colombia, Spain and Paraguay, would replace Mary Ryan, who retired after criticism that lax visa policies had allowed many of the September 11 hijackers to enter the country.
Christian and family-rights groups have made an issue of Ms. Harty's tenure as head of the department's Office of Children's Issues, in particular her handling of disputed custody cases for American children being held in Saudi Arabia and other predominantly Muslim countries.
"This is nothing personal against Maura Harty," said the Rev. Keith Roderick, head of the Illinois-based Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights. "But at this time in its history, this post needs a forceful, strong advocate, not somebody who is not willing to rock the boat."
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, placed a "hold" on the nomination Wednesday, informally blocking action in the Senate the same day the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent the nomination to the Senate floor on a voice vote.
Mr. Grassley lifted his hold a day later after a meeting with Ms. Harty, but Senate leadership sources said another unnamed lawmaker has renewed the hold. Senators by tradition may place an anonymous brake on floor nominations. Mr. Grassley is one of the few senators who make a practice of announcing his holds.
Ms. Harty was not available for comment.
Kelly Shannon, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the State Department continued to back Ms. Harty.
"As both the president and Secretary [of State Colin L.] Powell have said, we believe Ms. Harty is the highest-qualified person for the job," she said yesterday.
With just a few working days left before Congress adjourns, a delay could torpedo the nomination for the session, although Ms. Harty's nomination could get a second chance if the Senate Democratic leadership calls for a lame-duck session after the November congressional elections.
Ms. Harty's tenure as head of the consular bureau's Office of Children's Issues has been the subject of particular scrutiny, with the House Government Reform Committee holding a hearing on international child abductions, including a large number of cases involving custody disputes with Saudi Arabia.
The issue has gained such prominence that President Bush raised it with Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan when the two met for a well-publicized private meeting at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in August.
"Many parents do not believe that Ms. Harty, in her capacity as managing director of the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, vigorously pursued the interests of American abducted children," Mr. Grassley said in a statement in the Congressional Record Wednesday spelling out his concerns.
One U.S. mother, Maureen Dabbagh, wrote a letter to lawmakers complaining the office did not press hard enough to return her daughter, Nadia, who was abducted and taken to Syria and then Saudi Arabia in 1993 by her Syrian father.
"My child is not home because of Maura Harty," Mrs. Dabbagh wrote.
The department's pre-September 11 visa practices have also come under sharp scrutiny because of the ease with which the attack's plotters were able to enter the United States. Mr. Grassley cited the bureau's management of an expedited visa program used by the hijackers as another reason for his hold.
Without referring to the Harty nomination, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher this week defended the visa office's performance before September 11 and said monitoring and safety procedures had been significantly upgraded in the months following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
"It's easy as a Monday-morning quarterback to say somebody would have made this or that different decision, but I don't think that's fair to the process," Mr. Boucher said. "And in any case, the process is vastly different now than it was then."


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