WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Thursday expressed dismay that a key federal program to prevent terrorist travel is riven by slow implementation, insufficient operating guidelines, and inter-agency disagreements. These shortcomings have led to uneven implementation of the program and confusion among its participants.
The Visa Security Program (VSP) – now eight years old – places Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at consular posts abroad to review and investigate visa applications in order to bar terrorists from obtaining visas to enter the U.S.
But a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that just over half of the 20 consular offices most at risk of processing visas from potential terrorists still have no VSP presence; ICE and the State Department have failed to develop adequate guidelines or operating procedures for VSP units at consular offices; and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the State Department cannot agree on the degree of association a visa applicant must have to a terrorist to render the applicant ineligible.
“This GAO report paints a very disappointing and troubling picture of the Visa Security Program, which is such an important part of our strategy to keep terrorists from entering the United States,” Lieberman said. “The VSP is not working the way we need it to.
“I am particularly upset by GAO’s conclusion that the Departments of Homeland Security and State cannot agree on grounds to deny a visa to an applicant. Any association with terrorism should be enough to stop a visa applicant from coming to our country.
“I hope this report will move Secretaries Napolitano and Clinton to quickly make sure that personnel within their two departments are working together to fulfill the purpose of the Visa Security Program so that the significant gains we have made in securing our borders will not be lost because of bureaucratic disagreements or inattention. ”
Collins said: “Effective operation of the Visa Security Program is a critical aspect of the security system that is intended to keep terrorists from entering our country. That is why the problems uncovered by GAO are so troubling. I have been pushing DHS to expand the program to other high-risk embassies for some time, yet too many are still uncovered.
“Where the program is in place, it must run as effectively as possible. VSP must implement standard operating procedures to help DHS and State Department agents resolve questions about who should—and who shouldn’t—receive a visa to come to our country. All of those involved in the visa process at these particularly sensitive embassies should be rowing in the same direction for the program to succeed.”
Following the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on December 25, 2009, by a Nigerian man who obtained a U.S. visa, Lieberman and Collins asked the GAO to assess the effectiveness of the VSP. The program’s three primary objectives are identifying and stopping terrorists from traveling, identifying future threats, and maximizing the law enforcement and counterterrorism value of the visa process.
GAO found that VSP is operating at 19 consular posts, out of 216 that issue visas, while 11 of the 20 highest risk posts identified by a joint DHS/State Department assessment have no VSP presence at all. GAO concluded that ICE has not worked to address the problem of high-risk posts that lack VSP unites, nor has ICE established nine posts identified for expansion in 2009 and 2010.
GAO also found that limited guidance from DHS and State has led to “confusion and inconsistency among posts.” Training of consular officers varies from post to post and doesn’t even exist at some posts. Evaluating the program’s effectiveness is further hampered because ICE does not produce reports assessing VSP’s performance, and the data that ICE does collect is unreliable. The report concluded that ICE has been unable to meet the program’s goals because of budget limitations and State Department objections to expanding the program to some posts.