Visa agency viewed as curious omission in homeland department

While the expansive Department of Homeland Security, as proposed, would combine a host of agencies from existing departments, many experts are scratching their heads over what they see as a glaring omission: the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

"If you want to say, `We want to prevent the entry of the evildoers upstream,' you've got to include Consular Affairs," said Paul Light, vice president for governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "What the new department is saying is, `Our job begins at the border.' That may well be a mistake."

The new department would envelop all the U.S. border-control officials stationed in this country but leave out the 800 or so Foreign Service officers responsible for deciding--at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world--whether to grant foreigners a visa.

Since Sept. 11, many terrorism experts have questioned the wisdom of having the State Department's most junior diplomats handle what in many ways is a police function--determining which foreigners can safely be allowed into this country. Insiders say that the White House mulled shifting Consular Affairs before deciding to leave it in the State Department.

The proposed Homeland Security Department would take responsibility for adding a biometric identifier--such as a fingerprint or iris scan--to U.S. visas to ensure that the person entering this country is actually the one who was issued the visa. And the new department would keep track of who should not be issued visas.

The easiest way to prevent terrorism on American soil is to keep terrorists from reaching America. Consular officers are the first Americans to make decisions about whether someone should be allowed into this country, and they have the most time to reach a decision. (Theoretically, officers can take all the time they want on a given visa but are often asked to process hundreds of visa requests per day.)

Inspectors at the Immigration and Naturalization Service have the power to turn foreigners away at the door, but they usually defer to consular decisions because they don't have the time or resources to assess everyone thoroughly.

Leaving Consular Affairs out of the Homeland Security Department, experts say, would make it difficult to achieve the seamless coordination among border officials that the White House is trying to foster, because the first line of border defense won't be under the same commander as the rest of the border agencies.

The exclusion would also mean no improvement in the quality of visa decisions. Under the State Department, consular officers are inexperienced junior officers who often have their sights set on sipping cappuccino with fellow diplomats in a piazza in Rome, not sitting behind a plexiglass window interviewing visa applicants.

Consular officials are trained with an eye toward serving foreigners quickly and fairly. They generally don't have the law enforcement mind-set necessary to see each visa applicant as a potential security risk, says former Foreign Service officer Wayne Merry. Plus, he says, the embassies reward consular officials not for rejecting potentially dangerous applicants, but for approving as many visas as possible.

Left to its own devices, the State Department won't change anything, Merry warns, even though the Sept. 11 terrorists had entered this country legally. "I have yet to hear the Bureau of Consular Affairs share any responsibility for Sept. 11," Merry said. "They don't recognize that they did anything wrong."

The rationale for leaving out Consular Affairs is that all embassy activities should fall under the purview of the State Department. But Merry calls that a "hollow argument," and says that when he was a consular officer in Moscow his embassy housed employees from at least 30 different agencies, including NASA.

Light said that it would make much more sense to include Consular Affairs, whose duties are almost entirely related to border security, than to include the Coast Guard. Only about 25 percent of the Coast Guard's duties involve border security. The rest involve environmental and maritime projects, such as rescuing sea turtles.

"We've got the sea turtles and fruit flies covered. But, no, we can't do Consular Affairs," Light said. "If it wasn't political, I cannot see the rationale for not including Consular Affairs."

Congress will have the option of folding Consular Affairs into the new department. And the absence of Consular Affairs from the new Homeland Security Department could be a sizable chink in the nation's border-security armor.

"I think it's a huge problem," Merry said. "We'll be vulnerable."