State to Review 'Visa Express' Program

Facing increased scrutiny from Capitol Hill, the State Department has ordered a review of procedures at all 207 U.S. posts worldwide that issue visas.

The department also wants to send special inspection teams this fall to visa-issuing posts in countries linked to terrorism.

In addition, officials are moving 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.

The new initiatives were disclosed Tuesday by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., chairman of a House Government Affairs subcommittee.

Their information was based mostly on correspondence with the State Department's inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin.

The State Department's performance in issuing visas is receiving an unusually high level of congressional attention these days 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. The Bush administration wants the State Department to retain that function.

Grassley and Weldon had told Ervin they were "very troubled" by reports suggesting that some visa applicants are receiving approval without proper interviews.

They said three of the 19 hijackers responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took advantage of a State Department program known as Visa Express. That program, they said, allows applicants to receive visas through a travel agents and does not require them to be interviewed by an American official.

Department spokesman Richard Boucher last week rejected suggestions that Visa Express has led to inadequate scrutiny of 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 dismissed as a "myth" a report that only 2 percent of visa applicants in Saudi Arabia were interviewed under this program.

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:

— The United States issued 36,018 visas through Visa Express to Saudi Arabian applicants (citizens and third-country nationals) from June 1, 2001, through Sept. 10, 2001.

— Saudi Arabian citizens accounted for 64 percent of that figure; just 3 percent of them were interviewed.

— People from other countries living in Saudi Arabia made up 36 percent; 72 percent of them were interviewed.