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Senators say visa security program implementation ‘troubling’

Sens. Collins (R-ME), Lieberman (I-CT)

A program meant to screen out terrorists overseas before they can get to the U.S. has significant problems with implementation and confusion among DHS, ICE and State Department participants, said two leading senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) said the Visa Security Program “is riven by slow implementation, insufficient operating guidelines, and inter-agency disagreements,” in an April 21 statement. They said implementation of the eight year-old program that 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., is woefully behind and confused.

They pointed to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found just over half of the 20 consular offices most at risk of processing visas from potential terrorists have no VSP presence. A number of problems plague the program, they said. According to the report, said Lieberman and Collins, ICE and the State Department haven’t developed adequate guidelines or operational procedures for VSP units at consular offices, while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the State Department can’t 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.

Collins and Lieberman had asked the GAO to assess the effectiveness of the program following the December, 2009 attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight by a Nigerian man who obtained a U.S. visa. 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.

The GAO report 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, said the Lieberman and Collins statement. GAO concluded that ICE has not worked to address the problem of high-risk posts that lack VSP units, nor has ICE established nine posts identified for expansion in 2009 and 2010, they said.

GAO also found that limited guidance from DHS and State has led to “confusion and inconsistency among posts.” Lieberman and Collins said training of consular officers varies from post to post and doesn’t even exist at some posts and gauging the program’s effectiveness is further hampered because ICE does not produce reports assessing VSP’s performance. The data that ICE does collect is unreliable, they said. 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.

“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,” he said.

“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."

“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,” said Collins.  “That is why the problems uncovered by GAO are so troubling.”


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