Mowbray: It's the visas, stupid
Mowbray of the Washiington Times nails the State Department in the following piece for its shoddy visa handling practices, the chief culprit in the investigation of the Detoit Christmas bombing case. Most, including the media have ignored the fact that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had a valid visa when he boarded his Detroit-bound flight. Without a valid visa, the young Nigerian would not have been en route to the United States in the first place.
President Obama and other government officials have blamed the terror incidient on the intelligence agencies' failure to connect the dots totally missing the point that there would be no dots to connect if a visa hadn't been issued in the first place.
Have we learned nothing from 9/11? None of those hijackers qualified for visas either, but were issued visas nonetheless. The State Department maintains the status quo. Nothing has changed in the visa issuance or visa revocation process. The State Department has steadfastly held to its position that visas should be issued in all circumstances unless shown a clear reason not to issue a visa. And in this case, a clear reason not to issue did not include the warnings from Abdulmutallab's father to State Department officials in Nigeria that his son was a terrorist.
Mowbray writes a compelling history::
Even though Mr. Abdulmutallab's father told U.S. Embassy officials on Nov. 18 that he feared his son might have terrorist intentions, the al Qaeda operative retained his privilege to enter the U.S.
While the initial visa issuance to Mr. Abdulmutallab might well have been legitimate - he is, after all, well-educated and from a successful family - the fact that his visa was not immediately revoked is beyond baffling.
Although a misspelling of the young Nigerian's name prevented State from identifying his still-valid visa, the report further notes that the father's warnings would not have been sufficient cause to rescind it. According to the report, "A determination to revoke his visa, however, would have only occurred if there had been a successful integration of intelligence by the CT [counter terrorism] community, resulting in his being watchlisted."
How convenient. Let's blame Homeland Security or any other government agency even though it was the Department of State who received the information that Abdulmutallab had terrorist leanings sufficient to cause his father to go to the authorities to warn them of a possible attack. Why was State incapable of revoking the visa with that information at that time?
Mowbray explains State's inability to act as being attributable to a long-held institutional mindset that a visa must be issued to qualified applicants, with denials only possible with specific, credible proof that someone can be deemed a security threat.And even though the State Department has the discretion to deny visa issuance, they don't exercise that discretion.
But unlike in a court of law, foreigners wishing to enter the U.S. should not be presumed innocent. Moreover, denial of the privilege to come to the U.S. is not reviewable, and it can be made unilaterally by State. Yet it is State who pushes to issue visas to those who raise red flags, but don't quite belong on the terrorist watchlist.
The Department of Homeland Security, which holds partial regulatory authority over visa policy, has had running battles with State over visa issuance. Law enforcement-minded DHS officials believe in erring on the side of security, while State again and again has sided with foreigners seeking access to the United States.
As part of this larger power struggle, DHS has been thwarted in many of its attempts to open Visa Screening Units (VSUs), which were mandated for every visa-issuing post as part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Nearly eight years later, there are only 14 VSUs, or fewer than 10 percent of all embassies and consulates. There is no VSU in Nigeria, even though DHS has wanted to establish one.
Lack of funding is partly to blame, but several ambassadors have successfully rebuffed efforts to create VSUs in their countries - fearing that enhanced security enforcement would slow visa processing, angering local government officials.
What is it going to take to wake up the Presidentially appointed Ambassadors, the diplomatic bureaucrats in the State Department and embassies to recognize the crucial role of visa issuance plays in US Homeland Security? What is it about the concept that foreign terrorists who wish to strike the US on US soil need visas to do so they don't understand?
State shouldn't need encouragement to understand the crucial role of visas for foreign terrorists who wish to strike on U.S. soil. As we learned from the Sept. 11 Commission report, al Qaeda wasn't even able to recruit 30 operatives for Sept. 11. Their good fortune - and our tragedy - was that they recruited mostly in Saudi Arabia, a country which enjoyed 98 percent visa approval rates before Sept. 11.
What the Sept. 11 Commission acknowledged - but strangely shrugged off as insignificant - was that not one of the terrorists actually qualified for the visas that they all received. (Four of the application forms were destroyed by regular policy before Sept. 11.) In other words, had the visa law been followed, at least 15 of the terrorists wouldn't have gained entry to the United States in order to carry out the attacks.
Yet with that painful history, State's sole response to the warnings from Mr. Abdulmutallab's father was to "nominate" the young Muslim fanatic for inclusion on the terrorist watchlist. While this led to him being named a "possible terrorist," State's policy is to deny or revoke visas only for known terrorists.
And while it is welcome that Mr. Obama has ordered a review of "visa issuance and revocation criteria," a more decisive step must be taken.
Any probable cause of terrorist connections needs to result in visa denials and revocations unless the evidence can be disproved or reasonably deemed illegitimate. Even when we have no specific information, as was the case with most of the Sept. 11 terrorists, State should enforce the visa laws as strictly with young Muslim men from known terrorist hotspots as it does with poor (or even middle-class) Filipinos.
The State Department is going to require a total overhaul of the way they do visa issuance/revocation business as well as a fundamental change in mindset, not only of the diplomatic corps but also of the Ambassadors who get appointed to serve overseas. Mowbray concludes:
But for State to enforce existing law and err on the side of security, the department must undergo a complete about-face from its current operating procedures. If Mr. Obama is as serious as he purports to be, however, he must demand nothing less.