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Homeland Security Must Grant Visas -- Not the State Department

Nearly 300 innocent passengers and crew members on Northwest Flight 253 received what looks to be a Christmas miracle when they were not killed by an alleged terrorist who set off an explosive onboard. While the media is already raising questions about airline security, there is a more cogent question that needs to be answered: why is the federal government still giving visas to terrorists? Significant policy changes are necessary.

The criminal complaint filed by the FBI against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab after his arrest at the Detroit airport accuses him of a “willful attempt to destroy an aircraft.” It cites preliminary analysis of the explosive in his possession as containing PETN, which was the explosive to be used in the foiled 2006 terrorist plot to blow up several commercial planes over the Atlantic. Early reports indicate Mr. Abdulmutallab, who is Nigerian, was given a visa with a two-year validity to enter the U.S. to attend a “religious ceremony.” (One wonders if that ceremony was to be his own martyrdom.) He confessed to receiving terrorist training during a recent trip to Yemen. It was also reported that Mr. Abdulmutallab was in a law enforcement intelligence database of people with suspected ties to terrorists.

Why was someone with this background and stated reason for visiting America granted a visa? It is unclear how much of the limited information reported so far was available to the U.S. official who granted Abdulmutallab his visa. As details become clearer, we need to consider whether political correctness has once again endangered American lives. For example, it is fair to ask whether the same politically correct policies and attitudes are at play here that allowed Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan to remain on active military duty despite contact with Islamists, after which he killed 13 soldiers and wounded 30 others at Fort Hood in November.

News reports are already indicating the screening of air travelers have been tightened. If that is necessary, so be it. But would it not be smarter to avoid letting would-be terrorists onto flights to the U.S. in the first place? What if Mr. Abdulmutallab wanted to commit a terrorist act within the U.S., rather than on the way here? No amount of airport screening would have stopped him, given that the State Department had permitted him access to the United States.

It is time for the U.S. to be more selective with those who wish to travel here from high risk areas and backgrounds. A visa should be a privilege, not an entitlement. The onus should be on the visa applicant to demonstrate a background free from unredeemed contact with Islamists or groups that advocate violence. Furthermore, there should be a compelling benefit to the U.S. for admitting a person from a background or geography that has a higher incidence of Islamist activity—and gaining a few extra tourist dollars is not a sufficient benefit.

To most people, this is common sense. But to critics on the left, it is the unacceptable act of “profiling.” But the fact is, whether we choose to admit it or not, we are engaged in a global conflict against those who wish us mortal harm. We should empower government officials to apply reasonable skepticism, statistical data and common sense in screening those who wish to visit the U.S.

Unless we are prepared to see innocent civilians murdered en mass as they travel or otherwise go about their lives—and the massive changes to our society and economy that would result—we need to do three things:

First, Congress should launch an investigation into why Mr. Abdulmutallab was given a visa. It should also determine how many other risky applicants are visiting or preparing to visit the U.S. with visas issued under similarly lax screening criteria.

Second, Congress should relieve the State Department of its role in issuing visas. This task should be given instead to the Department of Homeland Security, which is less eager to please foreign constituencies. Assigning DHS this role was contemplated at its creation in 2002, but not implemented in order to protect the State Department’s bureaucratic turf. But the department that issued visas to the September 11 terrorists, and still more since then, should no longer be allowed to perform this duty.

Third, we need to demand that senior officials not take the easy and politically correct route of grandstanding against “profiling” while failing to keep America safe. Their job is to make sure security personnel have the guidelines and training to do their jobs effectively. We need to put common sense and judgment back into the equation—before more Americans pay for political correctness with their lives.

Christian Whiton was a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is a principal at DC Asia Advisory in Washington, and a fellow at the American Freedom Alliance in Los Angeles. http://twitter.com/ChristianWhiton

Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-09.  He is author of the new book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books).