WASHINGTON – The State Department's inspector general has ordered a survey of all U.S. foreign posts that issue visas to determine whether any are being approved for unqualified applicants.
Clark Kent Ervin made known his request in a letter to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and to Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., chairman of a House Government Affairs subcommittee.
The two lawmakers on Tuesday made public a letter Ervin wrote concerning the survey. They had told Ervin earlier that they were "very troubled" by reports suggesting that some visa applicants are receiving approval without proper interviews.
Ervin also said he wants to send special inspection teams this fall to visa issuing posts in countries considered linked to terrorism.
Grassley and Weldon said three of the 19 hijackers responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took advantage of a State Department program known as Visa Express. They contended the program allows applicants to receive visas through a travel agents and does not require them to be interviewed by an American official.
The lawmakers have demanded the program's end. The State Department this month ordered a plan readied that would move toward requiring interviews for all adults who apply for visas, and would eliminate the role of travel agencies in forwarding visa applications to U.S. officials.
Department spokesman Richard Boucher last week rejected suggestions the program has led to inadequate scrutiny of visa applicants.
The travel agents who assist visa applicants "don't adjudicate," he said. "They don't decide. Only American consular officers decide who gets a visa."
Boucher rejected as a "myth" a report that 2 percent of the visa applicants were interviewed under this program in Saudi Arabia.
He said the actual figure was 45 percent. Those who are spared interviews include infants and people who have made multiple visits to the United States, he said.
Late Tuesday, Grassley's office released numbers provided by Ervin on applications filed through Visa Express in Saudi Arabia:
— 36,018 total visas issued to Saudi Arabian applicants (citizens and third-country nationals) from June 1, 2001, through Sept. 10, 2001.
— Saudi Arabian citizens getting a visa through the program accounted for 64 percent of that total; just 3 percent of them were interviewed.
— People living in Saudi Arabia but from other countries and getting visas through Visa Express made up 36 percent of the total visas issued, and 72 percent of them were interviewed.
Boucher said he figures related to applications. Ervin's covered approvals.
In his comments last week, Boucher had said that applications from people applying outside their own countries "are almost always interviewed, and anybody with any suspicions as far as the consular officer is concerned is always interviewed."
The State Department's performance in issuing visas is coming under increasing scrutiny on Capitol Hill because some lawmakers want to transfer that authority to the proposed Homeland Security Department.
Weldon supports the transfer, contending that the State Department is unable to screen out terrorists.
Grassley and Weldon also sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday expressing concern about the "detention and questioning" by State Department diplomatic security officials of a reporter, Joel Mowbray.
Mowbray, who has written for National Review magazine about the Visa Express program in Saudi Arabia, was questioned after disclosing at a press briefing that he had obtained a classified document about visa issues.