WASHINGTON – Critics of the State Department's visa practices say that the post-Sept. 11 photo line-up of the 19 hijackers should not have been the first time that U.S. officials scrutinized their faces, and they want some sweeping changes to how the visa system operates.
All of the Sept. 11 hijackers were in the United States on valid visas, and several of them got their U.S. visas without being personally interviewed by consular officials. In addition, some of the hijackers used travel agents to submit their visa applications under the so-called Visa Express Program — something the State Department recommends on its embassy Web site for Saudi Arabia.
Many lawmakers are furious over the practices, and at least two are demanding that Secretary of State Colin Powell immediately stop them.
"Visa issuance should not be about speed and service with a smile," said Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., at a recent House hearing into State Department operations.
In a letter to Powell, Weldon and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, argue for the termination of both non-interview visas and the process of allowing travel agents to turn in applications on behalf of travelers. They say such practices are "putting the American people at risk."
The State Department says neither practice allowed lax scrutiny of the hijackers, none of whom had a known criminal background.
"We take nothing more seriously than keeping people who should not come to the U.S., who would do us harm, out of the United States," said State Department Consular Affairs official Ed Vazquez. "That is not exclusive or incompatible with providing good service to people who are perfectly qualified to enter the U.S."
State Department officials testifying before Congress said they, too, would like to screen more applicants face-to-face, but can't.
"I would love to interview everybody but, very frankly, it is a resource issue. It is a people issue. It is a space issue," said Undersecretary Grant Green.
But Capitol Hill isn't buying it, and many are eager to see the responsibility for granting visas handed over to the newly-proposed Department of Homeland Security.
However, State Department officials privately worry that this will mean a loss of leverage in dealing with foreign nations. Publicly, the State Department is putting a positive spin on the proposal, saying the extra help in scrutinizing applications is welcome.
"The more we integrate the system ... the better we're going to be at finding out who's who, what's what and who doesn't belong here," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
On Capitol Hill, though, many are saying it's the State Department that doesn't belong in the process.