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Witnesses at Congressional Hearing Fault US Visa Security Program

There has been testimony on Capitol Hill about continuing weaknesses in the U.S. visa security system, which lawmakers and witnesses said could still be exploited by terrorists. They listed turf battles, inadequate staffing, and insufficient funding among the problems confronting the visa system.

Opening a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing, Republican Congressman Christopher Shays said gaps in visa security are leaving the doors of the United States open to terrorists:

"Weaknesses and gaps remain in the visa process that could be exploited by those determined to do us harm," he noted.

Since the Department of Homeland Security was created three years ago in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, debate has continued over a congressionally-mandated division of responsibilities between it and the State Department.

Congress gave Homeland Security the task of setting overall visa security policy, while State continues to process and issue visas.

Visa Security Officers (VSO) were to have been assigned to U.S. diplomatic and consular posts around the world, beginning with Saudi Arabia, where 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers came from.

Several years later, the program is only now on the verge of expanding beyond Saudi Arabia to five additional high-threat locations as U.S. officials describe them.

Jess Ford, of the Government Accountability Office, blames the delay on disagreements over goals, staffing requirements and coordination, and lack of a strategic plan:

"We found that the visa sections in critical posts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt were staffed with first year, entry level officers, and no permanent mid-level visa chiefs to provide to provide direct supervision and oversight," said Mr. Ford.

The GAO recommends procedures be clarified and resources at overseas posts be focused more sharply on national security concerns.

Tony Edson, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services, says there have been significant changes in the visa system since the 2001 terrorist attacks:

"Today's consular officers understand that national security is job one, while they work to facilitate legitimate travel," said Mr. Edson.

However, during the hearing, contradictions emerged in testimony regarding Saudi Arabia. Homeland security official Elaine Dezenski says efforts there have been effective.

"This additional scrutiny has prevented ineligible applicants from receiving visas, helped to identify new threats and fraud trends, generated new [terrorist] watch list entries, and led to the initiation of domestic [in the U.S.] investigations," she said.

Former homeland security inspector general, Clark Ervin disagreed.

"We found that it was not making much of a difference in Saudi Arabia. There were no designated VSO slots, the positions were filled by volunteers. And the volunteers were serving only on a temporary basis, resulting in a rapid turnover of personnel, I think the average was about seven months at the time. And the temporary volunteers were lacking in the basic skills they needed to be effective," he explained.

James Carafano, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, believes spreading visa security responsibilities between government departments was unwise.

"If we really want to have progress in this area, we have to have realistic deadlines, we have to have adequate resources, adequate human capital programs, we have to have clear standards, we have to have credible measures of performance, and we have to have integrated ID programs," he noted.

While U.S. consular officials have been receiving better training in counter-terrorism techniques and foreign languages, Congressman Shays and others want to see an end to inter-departmental disagreements and other problems slowing down the visa security program.