Many U.S. embassies lack additional layer of visa security

By Kellie Lunney

January 11, 2010

The expansion of a seven-year-old federal program designed to tighten the visa application process at U.S. embassies is moving too slowly, said a Republican lawmaker in a Jan. 11 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, blamed "objections and roadblocks from the State Department" for the delay in creating visa security units at high-risk overseas posts. The 2002 Homeland Security Act directed the department to assign Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel to embassies worldwide to work with and provide law enforcement support to State's consular officers who process visa applications. There are visa security units in 14 of the more than 220 State posts overseas, including the Philippines, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Northwest airplane headed for Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, received a U.S. visa in London and retained it even after his father warned officials in Nigeria about the threat his son allegedly posed. There are no visa security units in the London or Nigerian embassies.

One of the visa security program's stated goals is to identify not yet known threats to national security, or threats that do not appear in any government database or watch list.

While the law directs the Homeland Security Department to assign visa security personnel to high-risk posts, the decision to create such positions ultimately resides with the ambassador in that embassy. Many embassies overseas operate on tight budgets and a federal mandate requires officials to rein in personnel and administrative costs. Ambassadors must consider whether additional staff is necessary to perform the job, the availability of office space and personnel safety.

"It is extremely troubling that an ambassador can inhibit the ability of DHS in carrying out its mission," Grassley wrote in his letter.

A July 2008 Homeland Security inspector general report found that while some State officials approved of establishing security units in their posts, "other resisted." The report also said that to do their jobs effectively, ICE agents working with consular officers on visa security must be hands-on to conduct face-to-face interviews with applicants and assess the local threat. Consular staff interviewed by the IG praised the work performed by their DHS colleagues. "Many said they were initially concerned that agents would be looking over the shoulders of consular officers and checking their work," the report noted. "However, they said they were pleasantly surprised to discover this was not the case and that agents bring additional resources to post to support existing consular operations."

Grassley has inquired about the implementation of visa security units repeatedly since the law was passed.

A State Department spokesman said on Monday that he had seen reports on the issue, but could not comment specifically on Grassley's Jan. 11 letter.

By Kellie Lunney

January 11, 2010