The State Department's longest-serving diplomat will resign her post as head of the consular affairs office after revelations that at least 71 visas ended up in the hands of individuals who paid as much as $10,000 for their papers.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday his request that the head of consular services retire was unrelated to revelations that at least 71 fraudulent visas were issued in the U.S. embassy in Qatar.

"There was a time to make a change and it was done without any acrimony whatsoever," Powell said at a news conference, disputing public reports he had forced out Mary Ryan over the visas.

"It had nothing to do with any of the present circumstances as suggested in the newspapers," Powell said.

State Department officials said that "career ambassador" Mary Ryan was asked to rotate out of position as part of a normal changeover in authority.

"Ambassador Mary Ryan, announced her retirement early this fall after 36 years of truly extraordinary and distinguished service, including over nine years as the assistant secretary for consular affairs," said State Department spokesman Phil Reeker.  "Widely respected and admired throughout the government for her professionalism, her personal integrity and devotion to duty, Ambassador Ryan has served her country with great distinction. She will certainly be missed."

But those close to the decision said Powell asked Ryan to step down after Ryan received criticism from Congress that she is out of step with the security changes that are needed in the wake of Sept. 11.  The State Department is fighting to keep the visa-issuing service from being moved to the new Department of Homeland Security being formed.

The timing of Ryan's departure links closely to the announcement that "Operation Eagle Strike", an investigation led by Diplomatic Security, has uncovered that at least 71 people were illegally issued visas from the U.S. embassy in Qatar.

DS, together with the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service, has been investigating the visa fraud charges since Nov. 2001 after it learned that 38 Jordanians, 28 Pakistanis, three Bangladeshis, and one Syrian had all bought visas and were also linked to the terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

In fact, one of the men with an illegal visa, Ramsi Al-Shannaq, roomed with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers.  Shannaq, who showed up in court Wednesday for overstaying his visa, denied the charge that he paid $10,000 for the papers. His lawyer said that the fact that he roomed with two of the hijackers does not implicate him in any way.

"There is no evidence he has any connections to terrorists," said attorney Jim Wyda.

The Department of Justice has two other alleged visa buyers in custody who are also suspected of ties to the Sept. 11 terrorists.  As many as eight others are red-flagged in the FBI database for other reasons.

While 31 of the 71 have been caught, and others have left the country, 29 are still at large and believed to be in the United States. 

Their names are all known due to the computer records in the U.S. Embassy in Doha where they received their visas. But that is pretty much the end of the paper trail since no receipts of payment or applications exist.

State Department officials say that they do not want to speculate that U.S. embassy staff participated in the visa scam, arguing that a computer may have been hacked, money may have been offered for a visa that would have been issued anyway, or possibly a foreign employee at the embassy was involved.

None of the three U.S. consular officers working in Doha at the time have been conclusively linked to the crime, nor have they been cleared, but they are still working for the State Department.

The timing of Ryan's retirement to the Eagle Strike's announcement has some foreign service officers complaining that Ryan is being made a scapegoat for this and for a "visa express" program under fire.  Visa express allows travel agents to apply on behalf of foreign nationals to obtain visas without their being interviewed by embassy officials.  This has been in wide practice in Saudi Arabia, and three of the hijackers used the method for obtaining a visa.

The program continues to operate.