Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Now that President Bush is turning his attention to reforming the national security apparatus, one policy prescription not explicitly endorsed by the panel could prove to be one of the most effective: enforcing existing visa laws. Though it sounds simple enough, the State Department has yet to reform meaningfully this crucial component of the war on terror.

The beauty of using visa policy is that no new laws need to be written; the State Department merely needs to enforce existing ones.

The backbone of visa policy for temporary travelers, a category that included all 19 hijackers, is a law known as 214(b). Enacted in order to limit temporary visas to legitimate travelers, it states that a visa applicant is considered ineligible until proving his own eligibility. To overcome the presumption, an applicant must show sufficient ties to his home country, such as a house, spouse or secure employment, to convince the consular officer he will return home.

How does this work to keep out terrorists? The people most likely to be refused under 214(b) are those most likely to be terrorists: young, single, unattached males. Which is exactly what happened before September 11 — but for the most part only to non-Saudis.

The September 11 commission connected the dots, revealing in their report that properly enforced visa policy dealt a severe blow to al Qaeda’s plot: Eight of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed’s 27 handpicked operatives were effectively prevented from entering the United States. Six were denied entry because of 214(b), and two Yemenis personally chosen by Osama bin Laden also never reached our shores, because as the commission noted in a previous staff statement, “It soon became clear to KSM that the other two operatives, Khallad bin Attash and Abu Bara al Taizi — both of whom had Yemeni, not Saudi, documentation — would not be able to obtain U.S. visas.”

Had visa policy been enforced uniformly for all 27 operatives, however, potentially at least 23 of them would have been denied entry. The visa applications of 15 of the hijackers — those of the other four had been destroyed pursuant to standard procedures — were so deficient that none cleared the hurdle set by 214(b). All contained significant errors and omissions, as the commission found. Even if the applications had been completed properly, notes former consular officer Nikolai Wenzel, “each applicant fit the profile of a classic overstay and should have been refused on the merits.”

It was no coincidence that all but one of the 15 were Saudis. The General Accounting Office (GAO) found in an October 2002 report that the red carpet shown them was par for the Saudi course: 99 percent of Saudi nationals applying for visas before September 11 were approved. Egyptian nationals, by comparison, were refused 38 percent of the time.

This open door was provided despite abundant evidence of pre-September 11 al Qaeda activity in Saudi Arabia. With 15 of the hijackers hailing from the Kingdom, such evidence is now sadly tangible. The continual al Qaeda bombings there only provide further proof that the terrorist outfit is alive and well in Saudi Arabia. Yet the State Department’s approach to Saudi visas has changed only marginally.

Although the State Department no longer makes public visa issuance and refusal statistics, department sources reveal that nearly 90 percent of Saudi nationals applying for visas are approved. The agency’s representatives have defended this figure by arguing that since applications are down by more than half, those who are applying are of a higher quality. The same reasoning, then, should apply elsewhere, yet refusal rates for most other Arab nations are three to five times higher.

State Department officials constantly boast that they have doubled the number of names on the terrorism watch list and stepped up efforts to identify potential extremists who should be denied visas. That’s good, but it’s not enough — especially when al Qaeda has a penchant for recruiting so-called “lily whites” — operatives with no known terrorist ties.

Enforcing 214(b) in Saudi Arabia as is done elsewhere, though, might be a blow to diplomacy. Therein lies the basic problem: The State Department’s core mission is to maintain good relations with foreign leaders, which is inherently in conflict with the vital law enforcement function of visa policy.

A recent GAO report on visas revoked post-September 11 on terrorism concerns found “delays occurred in Consular Affairs’ decisions to revoke visas after receiving a recommendation to do so.” In three of the six cases GAO was able to review, Consular Affairs dragged its feet, including one instance where “State [department] officials deliberated for more than 6 months before deciding to revoke the individual’s visa.”

Congress already has recognized this fundamental problem, though it stopped short of proposals to stripping the visa function from the State Department. The compromise, enacted in summer 2002, was to require the Department of Homeland Security to deploy agents to one country: Saudi Arabia. But this has not proven sufficient. Congress needs to prod Homeland Security to make Saudi visa procedures a priority — and perhaps the best way to force the issue is to place at least Saudi visas entirely under Homeland Security’s purview.

Though only time would tell how effectively it would handle such responsibilities, DHS can scuttle politeness and act with a singular mission: keeping America safe.

Joel Mowbray occasionally writes for The Washington Times.

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