"We believe a new Department of Homeland Security empowered to provide consular officers abroad all the information that the U.S government knows from whatever source is the most essential element in assuring the denial of visas to those who would harm us," Undersecretary of State for Management Grant Green told a House panel on government reform Wednesday.
But this is a far cry from the view of the chairman of the hearing, Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla. In his opening statement he said, "The Bureau of Consular Affairs must have our homeland defense and the prevention of issuing visas to terrorists as its No. 1 priority, and clearly this bureau must become a full part of the new Homeland Security Department."
Under the President Bush's homeland security plan, the State Department would still issue visas to foreigners seeking to travel to the United States. But once they arrived at a U.S. port the new Department of Homeland Security would be responsible for screening them.
Recent revelations that three of the 19 hijackers responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11 applied and received their visas through a U.S. travel agency prompted the House Government Reform Committee's hearing Wednesday.
On June 18, Joel Mowbray writing for the New York Post published a story detailing how a U.S. program in Saudi Arabia called "Visa Express" allows travel agencies to issue the American visa applications by the mail, where consular officials in the embassy can review candidates for entry into the United States.
Last fall, the State Department began requiring men aged 16 to 45 from 22 Arab countries to fill out an FBI questionnaire in an effort to screen terrorists. While Green said the U.S. consular officials in Saudi Arabia only interview 45 percent of applicants for temporary visas, another senior State Department official told United Press International that consular officials interviewed 100 percent of this demographic in Saudi Arabia.
But Green said the Visa Express system -- of which similar systems are in place in many other countries -- was not the reason why the Sept. 11 terrorists were allowed into the country. "I cannot emphasize strongly enough that identification by intelligence and law enforcement and the sharing of that data with consular officers abroad is a critical component fighting terrorism through visa policies," he said.
Since Sept. 11, legislative changes to U.S. immigration procedures have improved the Consular Affairs database for screening potential terrorists.
But Weldon disagreed. "My sense is that the State Department is in hunker-down mode and not making a serious effort at self-examination, but rather protecting their sacred turf at all costs, even at the expense of the security of the American people."
The House Committee on Government Reform will be drafting changes to the Homeland Security legislation in the coming weeks.