- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Now that the world knows that the State Department was responsible for granting visas to the September 11 terrorists in direct violation of the law top State Department press flack Richard Boucher is playing political three-card monty: pretending there was nothing wrong with the way things used to be, but then stressing that things are now much better.
At the daily press briefing last Wednesday, Mr. Boucher dismissed my investigative report discussed last week on these pages as "Monday morning quarterback[ing]." He didn't dispute any of the facts unearthed, or that the forms were not even close to filled out.
The best Mr. Boucher could muster was a meek excuse: "The fact is that with 20/20 hindsight, I'm sure one can always find a reason that you might have turned down a visa." A reason? Try many for each visa.
Take Saeed al Ghamdi. Aside from listing "HTL" as the address where he intended to stay in the United States, al Ghamdi lied on his July 12, 2001, application when he checked "No" to the question, "Have you ever applied for a U.S. nonimmigrant visa?" If the consular officer had simply checked al Ghamdi's history, however, al Ghamdi would have been caught lying on the second form, resulting in a denial or so one would hope.
When pressed by a reporter as to whether the State Department had an official position on whether or not the visas were issued properly under the law, Mr. Boucher answered succinctly, "No."
This can be construed as a tacit acknowledgement that the State Department screwed up (why else wouldn't it defend the issuances?), although "screwed up" might not be the choicest phrase to describe actions that helped pave the way for the death of 3,000 innocent Americans.
The deeply flawed visa application forms speak for themselves, and even the State Department can't justify the unjustifiable. But it also refuses to take the blame for its own reckless actions.
Before September 11 and still to a lesser extent today Saudis enjoyed ridiculously relaxed standards for obtaining a visa: They didn't need to list the name and address of their employers or schools, they didn't need to show proof that they could actually self-finance months-long trips to America, they didn't need to give a U.S. destination more specific than "Hotel," and they apparently didn't need to fill in basic information such as their sex or nationality.
In fact, about the only area they all filled out though not correctly was marking "No" to the question, "Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in … terrorist activities?"
It is hard to imagine any other institution on earth accepting forms as shoddy as the terrorists' visa applications. Abdulaziz Alomari, Mohammed Atta's right-hand man, listed a hotel as his home address. With such temporary digs, he couldn't have gotten a Blockbuster card to rent movies, yet the State Department gave him a visa to come to the United States.
The State Department's incredibly high tolerance for incomplete forms chock-full of red flags is not just dangerous in a post-September 11 world; it was direct violation of the law even before September 11. The law insists that each visa applicant is saddled with the burden of proving his eligibility to receive a visa.
Even after September 11, the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh's claim that the present refusal rate is a scant 3 percent for Saudi nationals proves that not enough has changed.
Current and former consular officers agree that it is simply not possible in any objective sense that 97 percent of any group could overcome the high burden of proof for visa eligibility established by law.
Perhaps that's why Mr. Boucher is using diversionary tactics to throw reporters off the trail that inevitably points to the State Department's September 11 culpability.
Repeating a mantra the State Department was fond of using earlier this year, Mr. Boucher reiterated, "We had no information of any of these people in the namecheck system or any other indications that they didn't qualify for a visa." They didn't have "any other indications"? They did they had the law. Mr. Boucher tried dancing around it, but the fact remains that the State Department did not and cannot contend that the visas were issued properly under the law.
Further proof that the State Department is still resisting meaningful reform is its top pick to head up Consular Affairs, Maura Harty, who at least as of last week had not even bothered to review the terrorists' visa applications.
Although the State Department has no "official" position on whether or not the terrorists actually qualified under the law for a visa, Mr. Boucher made an eerie comment: "[T]he consular officers determined [that the terrorists did qualify for visas at the time]. And in the end, that's what matters." Sadly, that is, indeed, what mattered.

Joel Mowbray is a reporter for National Review and a contributing editor to National Review Online. E-mail: [email protected]

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