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Jewish World Review Oct. 9, 2002 / 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mobray
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The visas that
shouldn't have been | In the year after September 11, the hand-wringing mostly centered on the intelligence community's failure to "connect the dots." But what if the "dots" hadn't been in this country in the first place? If the State Department had followed the law, at least 15 of the 19 "dots" should have been denied visas - and they likely wouldn't have been in the United States on September 11, 2001.

According to expert analyses of the visa application forms of 15 of the 19 September 11 terrorists (the other four applications could not be obtained), all the applicants among the 15 reviewed should have been denied visas under then-existing law. Six separate experts who analyzed the simple, two-page forms - which can be viewed exclusively at - came to the same conclusion: All of the visa applications they reviewed should have been denied on their face.

Even to the untrained eye, it is not hard to see why many of the visas should have been denied. Consider, for example, the U.S. destinations most of them listed. Only one of the 15 provided an actual address - and that was only because his first application was refused - and the rest listed such not-so-specific locations as "California," "New York," "Hotel D.C.," and "Hotel." One terrorist, Saeed al Ghamdi, obtained a second visa in less than a year (both in Saudi Arabia), yet on the second application, he checked "No" to the question "Have you ever applied for a U.S. nonimmigrant visa?" Clearly, he had - but the consular officer apparently didn't notice.

The experts - who scrutinized the applications of 14 Saudis and one from the United Arab Emirates - include four former consular officers, a current consular officer stationed in Latin America, and someone with extensive consular experience who is currently a senior official at Consular Affairs (CA), the division within the State Department that oversees consulates and visa issuance.

All six strongly agreed that, even allowing for human error, no more than a handful of the visa applications should have managed to slip through the cracks. Making the visa lapses even more inexplicable, the State Department claims that at least 11 of the 15 were interviewed by consular officers. Nikolai Wenzel, one of the former consular officers who analyzed the forms, declares that State's issuance of the visas "amounts to criminal negligence."

The visas should have been denied because of a provision in the law known as 214(b), which states that almost all nonimmigrant visa (NIV) applicants are presumed to be intending immigrants. The law is clear: "Every alien [other than several narrowly exempted subcategories] shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for a visa, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant [visa]." State's Deputy Press Secretary Phil Reeker remarks that 214(b) is "quite a threshold to overcome." If only.

The 214(b) standard was obviously not applied the September 11 terrorists. For example, Fayez Banihammad, who received his visa in the United Arab Emirates, didn't even bother to list a present occupation or the purpose of his trip. In the field asking at what address he intended to stay in the United States, Banihammad incredibly wrote, "No." Even more incredibly, he got a visa.

As disturbing as the visa forms are, perhaps more disturbing is that the State Department has shown little interest in truly plugging the gaping holes in our border security. In researching its forthcoming report on the visas issued to the September 11 terrorists, the General Accounting Office found that at least as of May, no one at the State Department had interviewed the consular officers. The State Department refuses comment when asked if it has done so since.

Although the State Department has told Congress that it has initiated strict screening procedures in Saudi Arabia, a document prepared by the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh claims that only 3 percent of Saudi nationals have been denied visas since September 11 - compared to the worldwide refusal rate of roughly 25 percent. Mr. Wenzel puts it more bluntly: "To say that strict screening results in only a 3 percent refusal rate anywhere, let alone in the country that sent us 15 of 19 September 11 terrorists, is ridiculous."

Sadly, it looks like, absent congressional action, nothing at the State Department will change. State's hand-picked candidate to be the new chief enforcer of visa policies, Maura Harty, had not even looked at terrorists' visa applications as of her Senate confirmation hearing last week - yet the Senate is poised to rubber-stamp her nomination. That's a real shame, because examining the applications yields many valuable lessons. The most important is that we're not going to keep out terrorists until the State Department figures out that it needs to enforce the law.

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© 2002, Joel Mowbray.