WASHINGTON – A powerful senator in Washington is wondering what's taking the State Department so long to get off its haunches and fix its visa-processing system to boost the nation's security efforts.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and member of the Budget, Judiciary and Joint Taxation Committee, on Thursday voiced concern that the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs has done little to reform visa processing procedures since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"I'm appalled to learn that some posts don't have clear policies about visa procedures," he said. "The Consular Affairs offices must get serious about this. National security has to be the number one focus. The lack of change to a security focus in a post-Sept. 11 world is very alarming to me."
Grassley, who also has been a vocal critic of agencies such as the FBI, which he said are lacking in their pursuit of terrorists, asked Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin in September to review the department's nonimmigrant visa (NIV) issuing policy and procedures. Grassley asked for a thorough and detailed review, saying, "We need to get to the bottom of this and figure out how to keep the terrorists out."
The study looked at whether visa policies satisfied national security requirements, whether consular officers and staff are trained well enough to carry out the visa policies and whether there are enough resources to meet the demands of visa processing.
In a report released last week -- part of which is classified -- the State Department inspector general acknowledged that the bureau's focus on terrorism and visa control has been sidetracked by pressure to secure U.S. embassies and consulates overseas.
The findings were released last week and are considered "sensitive but unclassified." A classified section addresses findings concerning what's known as the Visa Viper Program, which was established as part of a larger counterterrorism program after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. The goal of the program was to identify potential terrorists and make their names available in a consular support system.
The report shows that Consular Affairs offices have not made any big changes in the visa issuing process, even since 1993. The inspector general concurred that the State Department's policies still aren't secure enough.
"The NIV issuance process as it existed before Sept. 11 was inadequate to meet that threat," the report states. "Since Sept. 11, steps have been taken to address this problem, though existing policies and resources remain inadequate."
The Consular Affairs unit notes, however, that its Consular Lookout and Support System, a database of names, doubled in size after the Sept. 11 attacks, which means that there is now double the possibility of identifying a person of interest for law enforcement and intelligence experts.
CLASS provides a consular officer with information that can be used to follow up directly with the applicant any inconsistencies that might have been discovered in the application process.
While the United States saw a huge spike in requests for demands for travel visas to this country, the report says, security concerns at embassies and consulates abroad increased.
Focus on visa applications -- and identifying potential terrorists -- was also sidestepped by efforts to revamp U.S. immigration policies and accommodate larger numbers of immigrants.
According to the report, policies remain inconsistent and unclear at visa-issuing posts around the world.
"National security and border security needs to be on every employee's mind at the Consular Affairs offices," Grassley said. "I hope the Department of Homeland Security takes visa security more seriously."
Although the new Department of Homeland Security is still in the works, the bill authorizing the Cabinet-level agency says it should contain, among other things, a director of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services as well as a Citizenship and Immigration ombudsman, which may have some visa oversight.
In the homeland security legislation passed by Congress last month, Grassley proposed amendments -- included in the final bill -- that require Department of Homeland Security agents at every facility where visas are issued or an explanation why a facility should be exempted.
Grassley and Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., are also responsible for helping to put to an end to the State Department's Visa Express program.
That program, which was killed in July, allowed visa applicants in Saudi Arabia to get approval to come to the United States without proper in-person interviews. They submitted applications through commercial travel agencies. Three of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers used the Visa Express program to get their visas and were never interviewed by a U.S. official. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers obtained visas in Saudi Arabia one way or another.
Before Sept. 11, this Visa Express program had allowed roughly 97 percent of Saudi visa applicants to obtain visas without face-to-face interviews.
The inspector general's report concluded that visa-issuing posts make up their own rules about waiving an interview with little regard for security, and that Consular Affairs' use of foreign travel agencies to help process visa applications is haphazard and reckless.
The report also shows that document fraud is a serious problem, and fraud detection efforts are not coordinated. Grassley has argued that fraud prevention units must be more effective around the world.
The homeland security bill signed by President Bush in October also calls for tighter control over the U.S. visa entry program. Among other things, it requires the secretary of state to implement enhanced security measures for the review of visa applicants and provides more money to hire additional staff and to train consular officers and diplomatic security agents.