Don't Call it a Comeback (sorry, couldn't resist).
Thanks for the kind notes, everyone. It is good to be back, but I do want to say upfront that I am not committing to any kind of regular schedule this time. I'll post things as I can and look forward to your comments and e-mails.
Today's topic- two articles that caught my attention recently. The first, "No Coyote Needed- U.S. Visas Still an Easy Ticket in Developing Countries
" by David Seminara
, has been kicking up a bit of a storm in the halls of the Foreign Service lately. The second article is from Foreign Policy magazine and is entitled "Meet the New Face of Al Qaeda
" (no author listed). This article has not, to my knowledge caused much of a stir and no one in the FS (or anywhere else in the U.S. government that I am aware of) seems to be connecting the two pieces.
Seminara's article deals with the fact that while most Americans think of illegal immigrants as "desperate migrants sneaking across the Mexican border... a 2006 Pew Hispanic Center study [found] nearly half of the 12 million-plus illegal aliens in America arrived legally with temporary, non-immigrant visas." The Foreign Policy piece details four "new faces" of al Qaeda- at least one of whom was a so-called "'clean-skin' operative" due to the fact that he had never been identified as a terror threat and never had an encounter with law enforcement. To me the connection leaped off the pages: it appears that way too many people are getting visas who probably should not and that al Qaeda is now deploying people we don't know about who very well might "qualify" for visas under the best of circumstances- which Seminara makes clear do not exist in the field.
Oh, and least two of the four could have made it into the U.S. on the visa waiver program. The woman detailed was Belgian and one of the men was British. What is with the past tense in these cases? Three of the four have already carried out suicide missions, and one is in custody after attempting to do so, which is the only reason we know about them. Here are some excerpts from the FP article:Shehzad Tanweer -British-Suicide bombing in London - epitomizes the threat of “clean-skin” operatives, authorities say. He was an A-student and a gifted athlete with many friends. Tanweer had no history of violence or run-ins with police. His family described him as “proud to be British.”
Muriel Degauque- Belgian, born Catholic-suicide bombing in Baquba, Iraq-Terrorism experts believe Degauque was the first European Muslim woman to execute a suicide attack. European women who marry Muslim men are now the largest source of religious conversions in Europe, and European counter terrorism officials are increasingly concerned that female converts represent a small but potentially deadly element of the terrorist threat in Europe.
Ahmed Said Ahmed al-Ghamdi- Saudi Arabian (son of a Saudi diplomat)- Suicide bombing in Mosul, Iraq - Ghamdi’s radicalization is notable because he was smart, well-connected in Riyadh, and had excellent career prospects. Raised within the Saudi upper class, he represents the higher end of the intelligence scale among Middle Eastern youth, a group not traditionally thought of as a hotbed for terrorist recruiting.
Kafeel Ahmed- Indian- Attempted suicide bombing in Scotland- Ahmed’s case shows how new technologies are helping to recruit the next generation of terrorists. Authorities believe he was radicalized in Islamist chatrooms, where he followed events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine closely. He was fond of downloading speeches delivered by Osama bin Laden, yet he showed little interest in Islamist causes in India. It was also on jihadist Internet sites that Ahmed downloaded hundreds of bomb designs.
In his piece Seminara draws on an impressive collection of data and his own experiences working on the visa line in Macedonia and Bulgaria to explain why he feels that there are serious problems in the visitor visa adjudication process. While some of what he recalls is no longer 100% accurate (things have changed a bit since he left) the errors are minor and in no way reflect the overall impact of the piece- for example there have been fee increases, and supervisors do now review some visa issuances (but not all). Seminara offers a laundry list of the reasons he believes are behind this problem, here are a few of my favorites:
• Foreign service officers tend to have a diplomatic rather than a law enforcement mindset.
• Developing countries place great importance on visas in bilateral discussions.
• There is a lack of accountability and emphasis on adherence to the law as a promotion criterion.
• Consular officers’ tend to value applicants’ purpose of travel over their legal qualifications for the visa.
• DHS has failed to implement meaningful exit controls or to share entry/exit data with consular officials overseas, leaving officers without adequate information on visa renewal applicants.
• The lack of feedback to consular officers on visa overstays leads many to underestimate how serious the overstay problem is.
• Officers evaluate how well-off visa candidates are by the standards of their home country, rather than by U.S. standards, and often fail to understand how a school teacher in Romania might prefer to be a cab driver in Chicago, or why a nurse from Ecuador would wash dishes at a restaurant in New York.
• Refused applicants, their relatives, and members of Congress place pressure on consular officials to overturn visa refusals, and sometimes manage to “wear down” consular officers.
• The simple reality that it is far easier to say “yes” to applicants than to shatter their dreams by telling them that they don’t qualify to come to America.
This is not the whole list, but you get the idea. I remember well looking out of my visa window and seeing the more than 2,000 cases we averaged per day (I spent my first 2 years as an FSO in a "visa mill") as well as the pressure to go faster and the seemingly never ending faxes/letters/calls/e-mails from Congressional offices wondering why some constituents cousin/friend/lover/co-worker had been denied a visa. I have very little doubt that had any of the four individuals profiled in FP appeared at my window they most likely would have gotten a visa from me, and that if they had applied recently to come to the U.S. the decision would have been the same.
Seminara does an excellent job describing the "culture of issuance" that pervades many consular sections, and describes in detail why visa interviewing is an "art, not a science" and the simple fact that it is quite hard to look another person in the face and say "no" to their visa request. I am not quite convinced that he has arrived at the correct conclusions, however- his number one recommendation is to take visa issuance away from State and give it to DHS. It is my understanding that DHS ever so briefly considered this when the agency was formed and that they basically said "no, thank you." He also calls for supervisors to review "all" issuances, which I don't think is even remotely realistic. Even if they had the time, they would not have the totality of the interview to review- primarily the applicant would be gone, so what would they be checking? Two points I agree with wholeheartedly, however, are:
• Refocus visa adjudication away from giving applicants the “benefit of the doubt” and toward strict adherence to the law.
• Allow consular officers access to entry/exit data to increase the quality of decision-making by preventing chronic visa abusers from renewing their visas.
Of course for the second point we'd actually have to have an idea who is leaving the country.
The reality is that we don't seem to be moving in that direction, and in fact may be regressing by offering visa free travel to South Korea, Czech Republic and more EU countries. Foreign born terrorists are not the only threat to national security, to be sure. But stopping them should at least be a pillar of our national security strategy. Hamstringing our officers in the field by not collecting valid data (entry/exit) and not sharing what data we do collect while expanding the visa waiver program strikes me as a recipe for trouble. I highly reccomend reading the entire Seminara piece, it is well worth the time.
Now if only I could a few folks at Foggy Bottom and on the Hill to read these two articles together...