Suspected Terrorists Got Post-9/11Visas

Over the past two years, the State Department has granted visas to as many as 184 foreign travelers whose background checks suggested links to terrorism or whose true identities could not be determined by the U.S. government, says a recent report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) that was obtained by Human Events.

Moreover, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) told Human Events that if any of these 184 foreign visitors are still in the United States, the INS is not looking for them. Likewise, an FBI spokesman said that, as a general matter, the tracking down of these visa holders is not the FBI’s job unless they are wanted for specific crimes or specific terrorist associations.

Between January and August of this year, the State Department issued a total of “about 200” nonimmigrant visas in cases where the government “either believed these applicants are suspected terrorists, or. . .needed additional information to determine the applicant’s true identity,” according to the GAO report quietly released last month. A GAO source told Human Events that the actual number of mistakenly issued visas in 2002, after further investigation, was 105. Along with 79 other visas issued last year to individuals in an FBI terrorist database, this brings the total to 184.

Jess Ford, GAO’s director of International Affairs and Trade, told Human Events that although the GAO puts nearly all of its reports on the Internet, this one-from October 21-was deliberately not posted there because it contained “sensitive information,” although none of it is classified. As a result, the report and its startling findings were all but ignored by the press for more than a month.

State issued the 105 visas when the FBI missed a 30-day administrative deadline for returning the background-check results for about 38,000 visa applicants under a post-9/11 program called “Visas Condor,” which was intended to make it more difficult for terrorists to enter the U.S.

A State Department spokesman could not tell Human Events precisely how many of the visa recipients are actually “suspected terrorists” and how many are of unverified identity.

In July, after receiving a belated request from the FBI that the 105 applicants be denied visas, the State Department notified the INS that it was revoking all 105 visas. However, an INS spokesman told Human Events that his agency has no information on the whereabouts of the 105 visitors.

He added that if any of these 105 people had already used their visas to enter the United States before it was officially revoked, the State Department’s action would not invalidate that visa until it expired or the holder voluntarily left the country.

“Based upon the nature of the State Department revocation order, the INS would not have had a basis for looking for these people, because their visas are still valid,” said INS spokesman Russell Bergeron. Although State’s revocation order would allow the INS to deny entry to any of the 105 arriving after the order, those already here are considered lawful visitors.

FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell told Human Events that he could not comment on any pending investigation. However, when asked whether such a manhunt-for lawfully visiting foreigners who were mistakenly given visas and may have terror ties-would be the FBI’s job, Cogswell replied, “No, it’s not. And the only time we’d be looking for these individuals is if we had intelligence information that there was a terrorist connection, or if they were wanted for some kind of criminal activity.”

Cogswell agreed that the 105 individuals-apparently not fitting under anyone’s jurisdiction-seemed to have slipped through the cracks. “It’s one of those anomalies that’s out there relative to identifying the individuals and then locating them and removing them from the country,” he said. Cogswell could not comment on whether any of the 105 have been arrested.

The GAO report also noted an ongoing, fundamental disagreement between the Justice Department and the State Department over the criteria that should be used in denying visas to possible terrorists. This disagreement helps explain why the State Department willfully gave 79 visas in fiscal year 2001 to applicants whose names appeared in the FBI’s “TIPOFF” database, a tool used to track and identify international terrorists. According to GAO, State denied visas to 81 other applicants whose names appeared on “TIPOFF” during the same period.

State Department Consular Affairs spokesman Stuart Patt told Human Events that the granting of visas to people the FBI suspects of being terrorists should come as no surprise, suggesting that innocent people’s names frequently appear on the “TIPOFF” system. “You might have a common name that someone has reported on, or you might have been engaged in an activity or belonged to an organization that someone thought had suspicious ties, when in fact it didn’t or you didn’t,” he said.

The State Department, Patt added, scrutinized the 79 applicants in 2001. “They were not people who have terrorist ties,” he said.

Patt maintained that the State Department cannot legally deny visas based on mere suspicion of terrorism, or upon the mere appearance of an applicant’s name in a terrorist database. “We do ask for specific information,” he said. “We feel that that’s required in order for us to make a finding against someone that they are a terrorist.” Applicants who are found to be terrorists are barred from entering the United States legally until they reach age 90.

But in the Justice Department’s comments on the GAO report, Acting Assistant Atty. Gen. Robert Diegelman flatly rejected State’s interpretation of the law. “[A] consular officer need not have specific evidence that the applicant has participated in terrorist activities or associations to justify a visa denial,” he wrote. “We think the evidence is sufficient when a check of the applicant’s name and date of birth results in a hit or a match against the relevant databases. In our view, a name search hit does provide the consular officer a ‘reasonable ground to believe’”-the standard under immigration law-“that the applicant is a threat to national security and is therefore ineligible for admission.”

Even as the State Department requires specific evidence in order to deny a visa to possible terrorists, consular officers use the opposite standard in screening out “intending immigrants,” people who seek temporary visas in order to enter the country as illegal permanent residents. In such cases, the department places the burden of proof on the applicant to show that he will not stay in the country after his visa has expired. “The burden of proof lies with the applicant under the law to prove he is not an intending immigrant, but the law does not put that same language in the section about terrorism,” said Patt.

The GAO report states that the Justice Department screened 38,000 visa applications under the “Visas Condor” program between late January, when the program was established, and Aug. 1, 2002. FBI’s Condor check-which the report explains is required for “male visa applicants of certain national groups between the ages of 16 and 45” who also meet other criteria-returned 280 names of “applicants who should not receive a visa under the Immigration and Naturalization Act’s terrorism provision.” But by that time, State had already issued “about 200” of the visas, according to the original report.

The GAO report notes that certain actions have been taken to improve visa screening. For example, in cases where applicants require a Visas Condor check, State now waits in all cases for feedback from law enforcement before issuing visas. The department’s official comments on the GAO report-unsigned but accompanied by a letter from Assistant Secretary Christopher Burnham-also mention the possibility of reassessing several visas already issued. But spokesman Patt told Human Events that no large-scale plan was being developed to do so.

“No, there’s not a practical way to do that,” he said.