Washington, DC – Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) today stressed the need for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to provide guidance and conduct more stringent oversight of its Visa Security Program. The program is designed to protect the visa process from being exploited by known and potential terrorists who seek to travel to the U.S. The Visa Security Program provides training to consular officers on terrorist threats and application fraud and is responsible for reviewing visa applications. The program currently operates at two locations in Saudi Arabia. DHS plans to expand operations at those posts and add new operations at three other sites.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that was released today found that DHS has not developed a strategic plan outlining the Visa Security Program’s mission, activities, program goals, and intended results. The report also found that DHS has not maintained comprehensive data on the results of the program, so it is difficult to determine its impact.
“The September 11th attacks exposed vulnerabilities in the visa process, particularly the frequent failure to use interviews and application reviews as antiterrorism tools. The Visa Security Program is meant to help prevent those who may pose a threat to our country from entering our borders in the first place,” said Senator Collins. “But the program needs fixing, and the Committee looks forward to working with DHS to make the necessary improvements, including implementing a strategic plan and performance measurements to track the program’s effectiveness.”
GAO recommended that DHS, in consultation with the Department of State, develop a strategic plan to guide the operations of the Visa Security Program in Saudi Arabia and the planned expansion to other embassies and consulates, and compile and maintain comprehensive performance data. GAO recommended that Congress consider changing law that requires Visa Security Officers to review every visa application, since that was found to limit the officers’ ability to carry out their other functions. Other weaknesses that were identified, which need to be addressed by DHS: a lack of specialized training and foreign language proficiency amongst Visa Security Officers; a lack of continuity in operations due to the placement of temporary officers for two to fifteen months; and physical security concerns at consular posts.
Senator Collins is the Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has oversight of DHS.