Monday, January 11, 2010

Not just visas

Joel Mowbray has an editorial in the Washington Times today blaming the Christmas Day Under Bomber attack squarely on the State Department. I have have seen this sentiment in the blogosphere and completely disagree with it, but I have been loath to discuss it here. Now that someone has stirred that hornets nest in the mainstream media (both WT and CNN), I'll weigh in a bit.

MOWBRAY: It's the visas, stupid

By Joel Mowbray
"Tucked away in a single paragraph near the end of the declassified preliminary report on the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack is the key fact glossed over by most in media and the government: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had a valid visa when he boarded his Detroit-bound flight.

Whether or not "dots" had been "connected," Mr. Abdulmutallab never could have come as close as he did to successful mass murder had the State Department immediately revoked the man's visa when his father first raised concerns. Without a valid visa, the young Nigerian would not have been en route to the United States in the first place. "

Digger comments:
As Mowbray mentions later in the editorial, Abdulmutallab was qualified for the visa when he received it. He said, "he is, after all, well-educated and from a successful family." He had travelled previously without breaking any laws. So issuing the visa was the appropriate decision. However, even had State revoked the visa the moment his father raised concerns, this would not have affected his ability to get onto the flight because he still had in his passport a visa that looked valid. Airlines don't have access to our visa records for understandable security reasons, and we don't have DHS agents at every overseas airport in the world. So the first place that it could have been noticed that his visa had been revoked would have been at the U.S. border. and his attack occurred long before that.

The only way that the visa could have been invalidated so that the airlines would know would have been to get him to come into the embassy and let them stamp "revoked" on his visa. What do you think the chances of that are?

Mowbray continues:
"All the more maddening is that this is precisely the lesson we learned from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists, none of whom actually qualified for the visas that were nonetheless issued to them. Yet eight years later, the State Department has barely budged its default position that visas are to be issued unless they have a clear reason to deny applications. "

Digger continues:
Absolutely false. When I took con-gen (the training course for consular officers), I was told that for tourist visas you start at no. All applicants are to be presumed to be intending immigrants until they can prove otherwise. For me, this meant that they needed to overcome, in addition to everything else, what I called my "hinky feeling." If I wasn't sure you intended to come to the U.S. for legitimate reasons, you didn't get the visa. Period. And I think this is the default position for every officer working the visa window, especially those of us who joined after 9/11. Because no one wants to be part of letting that happen again. We all jumped through a lot of hoops to join the Foreign Service because we love this country and wanted to serve it.

Mowbray continues:


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. "

Digger comments:
I think the lack of VSUs has much more to do with funding than any power struggle. It cost a lot of money to have someone overseas. Not only do you have the cost of the person's salary, but their housing and transportation as well. Add to that the cost of training in language and area studies (most FSOs going to do visa work receive six months to a year of language training alone. DHS would have to bear the expense of that training for someone who was likely to serve in that country only once and then come back to the U.S. FSOs know that there is a likelihood of returning to the countries where their language skills are needed). If I had to guess, most of those 14 VSUs are in English-language posts. I would personally welcome DHS at any post where I served, but it is going to cost the American taxpayers a bundle.

You can read the rest of his editorial, which continues from the building blocks above, here.


Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here:

Jaime said...

Sorry, Digger but I agree with Mowbray's overall premise that State didn't do enough (though his characterization of the State Department psyche, according to you incorrect). Sure Mr. Abdulmutallab already possessed a visa. However, I can't believe that there is no way for the State Department to communicate directly with other agencies, as well as TSA to let them know that a certain passenger should not be allowed on American-bound flights.

I don't understand how a father coming in to turn in his own child is not enough for the department to have a stronger response. As an intern, I have seen visa interviews in Embassies overseas. I spent hours in one Embassy's consular section to see less than five people receive visas to enter the country and their greatest threat to the U.S. was overstaying in hopes to earning a better living. It's baffling that this warning did not elicit a stronger response from the Department. As long as we can go back and say "this is what could have been done", then it's what SHOULD have been done.

Does DOS deserve all of the blame? Of course not. This was a failure of all of the federal agencies involved. However, State was first up to bat when it came to helping prevent this would-be attack. I think the Department would come off a lot better if their IMMEDIATE response was, "This is what happened, this is how it happened, and this is how we plan to never let it happen again."

Anonymous said...

I had a VSU at my previous post, which was definitely not English-speaking. They had a horrible time getting anyone out there to work (no one would volunteer, so DHS basically pulled a stop-gap loss prevention maneuver and forbade incumbents from leaving... for 2 years), and by the time I got there, 5-6 years after VSUs were established, everyone in the unit, including the attache, freely admitted that they were far more interested and proactive in working with local and regional governments on anti-trafficking, smuggling, and airport security endeavors than visas. It's not that I have a problem with DHS having those priorities overseas - I think it's good. It becomes a problem when one cog in the wheel, though, doesn't have any interest in processing visas.