Lawmakers have heard details of weaknesses in U.S. government efforts to screen foreign visa applicants as part of more rigorous efforts underway since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A hearing Thursday by a congressional committee was aimed at assessing progress in getting two government departments, State Department and Homeland Security, to streamline and increase cooperation on visa procedures.
Lawmakers heard that worrying gaps remain, despite progress made in such areas as biometrics, involving use of finger scans, photographs and other technology to identify potential terrorists, and creating computerized databases.
A report by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, Clark Kent Ervin, says newly-created Visa Security Officers, or VSO's, assigned to work at U.S. embassies are being hampered by lack of funding, organizational and managerial problems.
So far, only 10 of these officers are assigned overseas, and only in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Ervin points to deficiencies in the way the program is being implemented.
"The Department of Homeland Security has not provided the VSO's with the training in language, fraud detection and interview techniques required by statute," he said. "Only one of the 10 officers reads and speaks Arabic."
Plans call for the Visa Security Officer program to be expanded to other U.S. diplomatic posts where visas are issued. Mr. Ervin told lawmakers this should not occur before changes are made.
Additionally, a visit to U.S. posts in Saudi Arabia in March of this year revealed what he called no thorough examination of thousands of visa applications submitted and approved before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States to determine if any of the applicants had ties to any of the 19 al-Qaida hijackers.
Mr. Ervin also adds the worrying observation that U.S. passports that have been lost or stolen can, and in some cases are, being used to circumvent the visa approval process.
The Homeland Security Inspector General welcomed a decision by the department to extend more intensive measures applied under a program called U.S. VISIT to individuals seeking entry under the Visa Waiver Program. That program permits certain people from 27 countries to enter for business or tourism for up to 90 days, without a visa.
Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, government agencies have struggled to balance the need for sharply increased security with the tradition of welcoming foreign visitors.
Some lawmakers, such as Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum, believe the visa screening process has gotten a bit out of control, and is keeping out risk-free individuals.
"At this moment in our nation's history, cross-cultural understanding and global relations are critical to the world, and critical to our safety," she said. "Now is not the time to discourage or dissuade the world's future decision-makers from studying, teaching, or conducting research in the United States."
C. Stewart Verdery, assistant secretary of Border and Transportation Security Policy, says the Department of Homeland Security is working with the State Department to maintain an acceptable balance.
"The ability of legitimate students, scientists, tourists or business partners to visit the United States is crucial to our society," he said. "If that travel is disrupted, either because people are unfairly rejected for a visa, or because they believe travel to the United States is too inconvenient, we will experience devastating effects on our economy in the short-run, and perhaps equally as important in the long-run. The ability of foreign visitors to come to this country is crucial to spreading our democratic ideals, further scientific development and promoting the image of America overseas."
The latest congressional examinations of changes in visa procedures have been spurred by the report of the 9/11 Commission that investigated security lapses contributing to the 2001 terrorist attacks, including shortcomings in the visa approval process that permitted terrorists to enter the United States.