Tuesday, February 22, 2005

In a sign that new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is not yet ready to close the open-door visa policy for Saudis, consular chief Maura Harty was recently asked to stay on indefinitely.

No one was more shocked than Mrs. Harty herself, according to officials at Consular Affairs, and many officials at the Department of State regarded the move — or rather, the lack of one — as an indication that there will be no major “shake up” at Foggy Bottom.

The surprise renewal of Ms. Harty as head of Consular Affairs delays what earlier seemed like an imminent appointment for her to be ambassador in London. How long she stays is not yet known, but what is clear is that she will continue to thwart any meaningful reforms at her agency.

A controversial nominee to the post two-and-a-half years ago, Ms. Harty swayed a reluctant Senate to confirm her by pledging substantial reform at the agency responsible for improperly issuing legal visas to all of the September 11 terrorists. She has not made good on her word.

Her predecessor, Mary Ryan, was fired after nine years at the position in a bid to mollify angry legislators. During the drafting of the bill that created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, Congress came within a whisker of stripping the visa authority from Department of State, which would have been a crushing blow to Foggy Bottom’s power and prestige.

Lawmakers were steamed about a program that Ms. Ryan continued operating in Saudi Arabia for 10 months after September 11 called Visa Express, which allowed residents in the country that sent us 15 of 19 hijackers to apply for visas at private Saudi travel agents. On the eve of the first committee vote on taking the visa authority out of the State Department entirely, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell sacked Ms. Ryan and Visa Express was shuttered.

But Mr. Powell proved he had no appetite for reform, as he appointed the protege and clone of Ms. Ryan, Ms. Harty, as her replacement. Ms. Harty, like Ms. Ryan, was a career veteran of the Foreign Service, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the courtesy culture — putting customer service for foreign visa applicants ahead of border security — instituted by her predecessor.

Not only that, but Ms. Harty was a top deputy to Ms. Ryan when many of the September 11 terrorists received their visas, and she was involved when the agency was developing Visa Express.

Ms. Harty unintentionally indicated to Congress that she had no real intent to reform Consular Affairs when she conceded that she had never looked at the readily available visa applications of the September 11 terrorists. (Applications of four of the terrorists had been destroyed.)

Had she done so, she would have seen that at least 15 of the hijackers actually did not meet the legal qualifications for a visa, and in fact, the only reason they were invited into the United States is because they were Saudis. She would have discovered that Visa Express was merely a symptom of a dangerous policy welcoming all Saudi applicants, no matter how unqualified under the law.

But she didn’t care.

During her tenure, Ms. Harty has stonewalled congressmen and senators pushing for reform. She has quietly kept alive much of the courtesy culture and has done little to orient her staff to think of themselves as the last line of protection in our border security. Consular training remains startlingly sparse, with a complete lack of law enforcement-style techniques to ferret out liars and cheats — or terrorists.

Worst of all, though, is that Ms. Harty has not closed the open-door policy for Saudis seeking visas. She has, in fact, opened it wider. The refusal rates for Saudi nationals wishing to come here has dropped steadily during her tenure, falling below 10 percent in Riyadh last year.

Nearly 90 percent of Saudi nationals applying for visas receive them, even though the law, particularly a provision known as 214(b), sets out rigorous requirements before someone can be deemed eligible. Refusal rates for most of the Arab world, for example, are three to five times higher than in Saudi Arabia — and that disparity is likely to grow under Ms. Harty’s leadership.

Saudis’ easy access to visas has not gone unnoticed by al Qaeda. September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed reportedly told interrogators that the reason 15 of the terrorists were Saudis was because they had the greatest ease getting visas.

With Maura Harty at the helm, that hasn’t changed. And as long as she sticks around, nationals of the country that sent us 15 of 19 September 11 terrorists will continue receiving the red-carpet treatment. If that isn’t grounds for firing, what is?

Joel Mowbray ocassionally writes for The Washington Times.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide