The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. intelligence agencies are combing through some 750,000 visas of foreign visitors to find out if any remain in the United States and if they pose terrorism or other security risks.
“The goal of this ongoing effort is not only to identify which individuals have overstayed their visas, but also to prioritize investigation and removal actions for those that may pose a threat to national security,” said Rand Beers, homeland security’s counterterrorism coordinator, during a Senate hearing Wednesday.
The hearing coincided with the release of a critical report by the congressional Government Accountability Office on numerous security shortfalls in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The report, which covered all U.S. visas in the government’s database, was made public in April and says 1.6 million people potentially had overstayed their visas. Mr. Beers said an automated audit showed that 843,000 of those already had left the U.S.
After the GAO issued that report, Mr. Beers said the department formed a task force “to address the backlog of unvetted potential visa overstays” identified in the report.
The Obama administration scored successes overseas in degrading al Qaeda by killing Osama bin Laden and several other senior leaders. At the same time, recent reports and audits of the Department of Homeland Security show major gaps in the system for keeping potential terrorists and other bad actors out of the United States.
On Tuesday, the GAO released a report that says foreign countries in some cases did not share fingerprint data with the United States used as part of the visa issuance process. In Pakistan, for example, fingerprint records are stored in a central database but not all government agencies have access to it.
In other cases, foreign governments lacked the ability to detect passport fraud or suffered from corruption among their own consular officers, the report says.
“The U.S. government still lacks an effective system for measuring and reporting progress toward the goal of enhancing our foreign partners’ capacity,” the report says.
The issue of terrorists obtaining visas is particularly important in light of the would-be bomber on a Christmas Day 2009 flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was a Nigerian national whose father had warned the U.S. Embassy about his son before the attack. That information, however, was not available to U.S. consular officers or airlines before he boarded the plane, which he attempted to destroy in flight using a bomb hidden in his underwear.
Mr. Beers said his department remains focused on trying to develop common international standards for biometric data such as fingerprints. He also said the department is working closely with a number of foreign countries.
The GAO report specifically states that while the United States offered several anti-corruption programs to foreign countries, no such programs addressed the problem of passport fraud.
Janice Jacobs, the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, said in testimony that the State Department and elements of the Department of Homeland Security work with foreign partners on training them to detect passport fraud.
During questioning, Ms. Jacobs said she had made it a priority to post senior consular officers at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, despite the recent departure of non-essential staff at that embassy. Yemen’s territory is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that U.S. intelligence officials have said has a desire and capability to launch attacks in the United States.