Anti-Terrorist U.S. Visa-Screening Program Not Deployed in Saudi Arabia--Home of 15 9/11 Hijackers
(CNSNews.com) – The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s Visa Security Program (VSP), created to prevent terrorists from obtaining visas to enter the United States, is not being employed at 11 of the 20 "highest risk" visa-issuing overseas posts, according to federal auditors.
One of the 11 "highest risk" locations where the program is not being used is Saudi Arabia--home of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.
The eight-year old VSP initiative places ICE agents at visa-issuing consular posts overseas to review and investigate visa applications with the intention of deterring individuals who pose a threat from entering the United States.
In DHS’s Visa Security Program Needs to Improve Performance Evaluation and Better Address Visa Risk Worldwide, a March 2011 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on April 21, the GAO concludes that the absence of VSP presence at 11 of the top 20 U.S. consular offices abroad most at risk of issuing Visas to potential terrorists represents ‘a significant gap’ in the security of the visa-issuing process.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking-member of that panel, requested that the GAO assess the effectiveness of VSP following the attempted Christmas Day bombing in December 2009 by a Nigerian man who legally obtained a U.S. visa.
According to the report, ICE “ranked 216 overseas [visa-issuing] posts based upon the visa security risk posed at each location,” taking into account consultation with the U.S. Department of State.
The State Department is responsible for determining whether to issue or deny a visa through its consular offices. ICE is the component of the Department of Homeland Security charged with administering the VSP.
“Of the 20 posts identified by ICE and State as highest risk, 11 do not have a VSP unit,” the GAO audit states.
Due to law enforcement sensitivity concerns by DHS, the GAO could not provide CNSNews.com with the location of the visa-issuing posts deemed high risk where VSP agents are not deployed. The GAO did say that the only location that has been made public is Saudi Arabia.
The GAO found that ICE has not identified methods to address the lack of VSP presence at the 11 visa-issuing posts deemed most vulnerable to security breaches.
Officials from ICE reportedly told the GAO that visa-risk assessment at posts without VSP presence is based on “the security advisory opinion (SAO) process, which provides in-depth screening and vetting of certain visa applicants at post worldwide.”
However, the GAO stated that “while the SAO process can mitigate some visa risk at those locations without a VSP unit, it does not ensure the breadth of coverage provided by agents through the routine screening and vetting of applicants who are not subjected to SAO process.”
ICE and State officials told the GAO that “screening and vetting of visa applicants could be performed domestically on a permanent basis."
In a statement about the GAO findings, Sen. Lieberman acknowledged, “The VSP is not working the way we need it to.”
Sen. Collins added, “The problems uncovered by GAO are so troubling. I have been pushing DHS to expand the program to other high-risk embassies for some time, yet too many are still uncovered.”
ICE had already established VSP units at 19 posts in 15 countries as of December 2010. However, the GAO noted that five of those units have been deployed to consular offices located outside the 50 “in the top tier or critical quartile, of the agencies’ rankings of high-risk [visa-issuing] posts.”
The GAO found that, due to a lack of comprehensive performance data, VSP “is hampered in its efforts to strengthen visa security globally.” It also determined that ICE has a limited ability to accurately assess the effectiveness of the program.
“The VSP will be limited in its goal to minimize global visa risk until DHS addresses the challenges of guidance, staffing, and data collection, and provides coverage and support of those high-risk posts without VSP agents at post,” the GAO report states.
The GAO also reported that VSP agents sometimes disagree with their State Department counterparts “as to what degree of ‘association’ with a terrorist is sufficient to render an applicant ineligible for a visa” -- a finding that has drawn the concern of Sens. Lieberman and Collins.
“I am particularly upset by GAO’s conclusion that the Department of Homeland Security and State cannot agree on grounds to deny a visa to an applicant,” said Sen. Lieberman in his statement about the report. “Any association with terrorism should be enough to stop a visa applicant from coming to our country.”
“Where the program is in place, it must run as effectively as possible,” added Sen. Collins. “VSP must implement standard operating procedures to help DHS and State Department agents resolve questions about who should -- and who shouldn’t -- receive a visa to come to our country.”
DHS agreed with the GAO recommendation to “develop a plan to provide more VSP coverage at high-risk posts.”
However, the DHS disagreed with the GAO recommendation “that the VSP collect comprehensive data” to measure the VSP initiative's performance:
"DHS did not agree with our recommendation that it ensure that the VSP tracking system collected reliable data on all performance measures. In its written comments, DHS stated that the VSP currently captures all the required performance metrics identified in its 5-year expansion plan through the VSP tracking system and TECS.
"Although we acknowledge that ICE is collecting some data on the performance measures identified in the VSP expansion plan, our analysis showed that the data were not sufficient to accurately demonstrate the progress made toward the stated objectives."
About $94 million in appropriated funds were allotted for VSP during fiscal years 2007 through 2010. ICE asked for $30.7 million for the program in its fiscal year 2011 budget request.