When in Doubt, Keep Them Out

HUMAN EVENTS reported last week (see cover story, December 2) that in the past two years, the State Department has issued visas to 184 aliens who are either suspected terrorists or whose true identities are unknown. HUMAN EVENTS also discovered that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is not looking for these suspect visitors, and has “no basis” to do so, according to an agency spokesman. According to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report that was quietly released in October, State gave 105 visas in 2002 to persons whom the FBI later determined might be terrorists, and to 79 others in 2001 whose names had appeared on the FBI’s TIPOFF terrorist database. The GAO report was produced at the request of Rep. Christopher Shays (R.-Conn.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Veterans Affairs and International Relations. HUMAN EVENTS Assistant Editor David Freddoso interviewed Shays by telephone last week. Here is an edited transcript of that interview. HUMAN EVENTS: I want to ask about this report, which is actually a month old but seems to have popped up on everybody’s radar screen now all at once. Specifically, what is the next step, now that we’re aware of 105 persons issued visas in 2002 who should not have gotten them? Rep. Christopher Shays (R.-Conn.): Let me put it in some perspective. There are millions of people who come here illegally. We don’t know if some of these people [the 105] came in. So there are a lot of question marks. It’s a concern that we’ve got to deal with, so we’ve asked for some follow-up information. But I just wanted to say that we have millions of people who get here illegally without a visa. So it’s serious, but what about all those without visas? HE: Of course. But in these cases we actually know that these are people who are believed by the FBI to have some kind of connection to terrorists. Shays: That’s a very good point. These are people for whom we want to have more information because they have profiles of concern. We don’t know if they’re terrorists—they are fitting descriptions, they have suspicious backgrounds. HE: When you say you’re asking for follow-up information—are you asking specifically for the GAO or someone to figure out how many of them have entered the country? Shays: We want to know questions like when and where were the visas issued, and when did the State Department know the applicants may be suspected terrorists? When were the visas revoked? How and when did State notify INS that the visas had been revoked? What did INS do when it received this information. For example, did INS enter the names and relevant biographical information of these people into the lookout system? Have persons whose visas were revoked on terrorist grounds entered or attempted to enter the United States? I want to know who has gotten here. And what actions have the state and INS law enforcement agencies taken to investigate, locate and apprehend these people. There are a lot of question marks. HE: Now when I called the INS, their spokesman wasn’t able to give me any information about whether any of the 105 had entered the country, or how many. But he said that when the State Department revoked these visas, the revocation applies such that if you find one of these people trying to enter on this visa, you can send them back, or—if they decide to leave the country—then as they’re leaving, you revoke the visa then. But what [the INS spokesman] said to me was, if they’re here in the country, we don’t really have any basis for going after them, because the visas remain valid until they leave. He said, We’re not looking for them. Do you have any comment on what he told me? Shays: That strikes me as a little weird. They’re here, we gave them a valid visa, but we have a question about it, so—Hello? I don’t like that answer. This is something that we may—I mean, when I hear things like that, it makes me feel we need to follow up sooner than next year. It makes me wonder if we should be asking for a hearing now to walk through this with some folks. That doesn’t make sense to me. . . . The bottom line is that there are a lot of question marks we have, and I don’t know if we should be waiting until next year to get to them. I will definitely have my committee follow up on the question you’ve just asked—that you’ve just brought out. The question is, should these visas have been issued, and so the fact that they were issued may have been a mistake. So to stress that because we’ve made a mistake, we’re not looking for these individuals, seems a little strange to me. HE: In fact, after [INS spokesman Russ Bergeron] said that, I called State, and they said, obviously we’re not a law enforcement agency. We just give people these visas so that they can come into the country— Shays: INS should be looking at that. HE: Right. And so he sort of pointed the finger back at INS. But I also called the FBI, who wouldn’t comment specifically on any person they’re after. But I asked, in general, if someone is here on a valid visa that maybe they shouldn’t have gotten, and they may have some kind of terrorist tie, would it be your job to go and look for that kind of person? And their spokesman said, probably not, although if there was something specific [such as a crime or a specific terrorist tie] we might go after them. Shays: This is just raising more questions. These questions are obviously a cause for concern. Nobody seems to want to take ownership. HE: I’d like to ask you about another thing that’s mentioned in the report. There seems to be a fundamental disagreement between the FBI and the State Department over the criteria for issuing visas to someone on a terrorist watch list. The FBI, in their comments on the report, specifically state that if [applicants] are on a list, that is sufficient grounds for saying these people are a threat, and we should be able to keep them out based on that alone. But the State Department—for example, with regard to 79 people given visas in fiscal 2001—they found them on the [FBI’s] TIPOFF terrorist watch list, and gave them visas anyway, deliberately. They said that the list has a very low standard of evidence, we looked into these people’s backgrounds and decided we should give them visas. First of all, do you think that just being on one of these lists is grounds for keeping someone out? Second, should the State Department be using its resources to exonerate, so to speak, someone who is on the list in order to give them a visa? Shays: First off, these are not American citizens, so obviously we have a lot more flexibility to decide what to do or not do with this list and the people who want to come here. It would strike me that we would want an accurate list. But if we have questions about whether or not someone should be allowed to come into this country, I would think the weight would fall on not allowing them to come. I mean, if we have doubts, then I would think the answer is no. HE: I asked this specifically to a consular affairs spokesman at the State Department. If someone is believed to be an intending immigrant, then the burden of proof is on the applicant to show he is not. . . . But when it comes to someone you may think of barring from the country under the terrorism provision, then the standard reverses—suddenly it’s more like innocent until proven guilty. Shays: The bottom line for me is that I think our nation has to think logically. If we think that someone is a terrorist threat, we either don’t allow them to come into this country, or—if they come in—we have to be watching them and using precious resources. We would be foolhardy to allow someone to come into this country who we think might be a terrorist threat. But we will be following up on this soon for sure. I don’t know if we will have a hearing in December, but we could. And if we don’t have a hearing, we certainly will have dialogue with the various parties involved.