U.S. officials have received intelligence indicating terrorists might attempt to slip into the United States using cultural, arts or sports visas, according to the FBI (search).
The bureau issued a bulletin to 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide warning about the potential misuse of P-visas (search), one of several types granted by the State Department for people visiting the United States for artistic, cultural or athletic purposes.
"Recent intelligence indicates that terrorist groups may be interested in exploiting cultural visa programs to infiltrate operatives and support network into the United States," says the bulletin, described Thursday to The Associated Press by a federal law enforcement official.
The bulletin, sent Wednesday, does not identify the source of the intelligence and contains no specific, corroborated evidence that any terrorists have entered the country this way.
Spies and defectors have in the past gained entry by tagging along with foreign sports teams or joining the entourages of famous performers. Some people granted these U.S. entry visas have even sold them to others.
"Often, there have been problems," said Bill Strassberger, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (search). "Is the person coming here for the stated purpose of the visa, or are they just trying to circumvent the program and stay here?"
State Department and Homeland Security Department officials say new fingerprint and photograph requirements put in place following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks make such infiltration much more difficult.
The FBI repeatedly has warned that Al Qaeda (search) frequently uses fraudulent or forged passports to allow operatives to move around the world, including a series of blank Saudi Arabian passports that were obtained before several imaging features were added to make them harder to alter.
The Russian government last summer reported the theft of 2,500 blank passports that officials feared could fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals. Forged U.S. visas can sell for $25,000 in Pakistan, the FBI says.
The visas granted to arts, culture and sports figures and their support people are minuscule compared with the millions granted each year to regular tourist and business visitors. Kelly Shannon, spokewoman for the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, said about 41,500 of these special visas were issued in 2001.
To get such a visa, a sponsoring U.S. agency or company must petition Homeland Security. If that's approved, the State Department interviews, fingerprints and photographs each person.
The names are run through a database of known terrorists, criminals and fraudsters, with confirmed matches leading to a denial. Some suspicious visas get flagged and are run through additional national security databases, and U.S. border personnel have access to the visa photograph and other information to guard against impersonators and tampering.
The FBI and other agencies are working to merge separate U.S. terrorist watch lists into a single database, known as the Terrorist Screening Center (search), that is supposed to make the checks easier and faster. And the FBI and immigration officials are trying to make the FBI's huge fingerprint database of criminals and terrorists more accessible to agents at U.S. borders, airports and seaports.
"The net is getting tighter," Strassberger said. "It's harder to slip through."