Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Abdulmutallab, Visas Viper, and Visa Revocations

Terrorist Screening CenterImage via Wikipedia

Yesterday, Ian Kelly, the Department Spokesman talked about the case of terrorist suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and the State Department role in this incident. Excerpts below. You can read the whole thing here:

MR. KELLY: Once we issue the visa, and there comes – there is information subsequent to that issuance, the State Department role is to pass that information on, which is what we did after this November 19 visit. So we sent in what’s called a VISAS VIPER cable. This is a system that was set up after November – September 11, 2001, and under this system, when we receive information that could cause the – cause us concern, we send it in to the counterterrorism community for their review. There was also set up, as you all know, the National Counterterrorism Center. And this is the interagency process that reviews the information as this information comes in.
QUESTION: Can I stop you –
MR. KELLY: And the information in this VISAS VIPER cable was insufficient for this interagency review process to make a determination that this individual’s visa should be revoked. It wasn’t – it’s not – it’s insufficient, and it is not a State Department determination per se in these kinds of issues under – let me give you the name of the act of Congress – under the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, the State Department is mandated to utilize this VISAS VIPER system when we get information, like we did on November 19.
MR. KELLY: […] Clearly, we need to review all of our procedures, and that’s what the President has ordered the interagency community to do. And Secretary Clinton is also going to ask the State Department, primarily our consular division, to review all of our processes. We did what we were supposed to do under this Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act. But as you know, the President has ordered a complete view, and we’ll have to see what comes out of that.

One of the issues we have to deal with is that we get thousands of pieces of information that are not always completely accurate. I mean, you have a lot of – what do you call them, poison pen messages, of people trying to pass on derogatory information. So, I mean, we have to be careful about when we put somebody on a watch list.
QUESTION: It’s the same subject, just the claim of responsibility for this. Al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula just said it’s responsible for having attempted this attack and said that they’re calling for the killing of all Western embassy workers in the region. I don’t know if you guys know about this. Have you done anything special in the region in light of this attempted attack?
MR. KELLY: I have not heard this. I mean, obviously, we take the security of our embassy and our – our embassies and our colleagues extremely seriously. I mean, we’ll review this. If it indeed is a credible threat, we’ll review it and see if we need to take action.

This may not be clear to folks but the VISAS VIPER telegrams report on possible terrorists who are not current visa applicants for the purpose of watchlisting them. For when they apply or reapply for visas.  As the regulations point out, the primary goal of the VISAS VIPER Program is to develop high quality usable records on possible terrorists. It is essential to develop and report all available identifying data on the subjects of VISAS VIPER telegrams. Derogatory information on a suspected terrorist, regardless of its gravity, is of little value unless it can be linked to that individual should he or she apply for a visa or for entry into the United States (9 FAM 40.37 N7.1 Identification of Subject)

From LAT’s editorial today: “When he purchased his ticket from Lagos to Amsterdam on Dec. 16, a Nigerian official said, his passport and U.S. visa were scanned and his name was checked against a watch list. Despite his father's intervention, Abdulmutallab's name hadn't been added to either a 3,400-name no-fly list or a 14,000-name roster of persons who could be subjected to intensive searches. His name was added to a 555,000-name list of persons considered suspicious but less of a threat. Apparently he would have received greater scrutiny if he applied for another visa. The problem was that he already had one.”

Which brings us to the subject of visa revocations – for aliens suspected of terrorism connections.

A five-year old GAO report indicated that in 2004, the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), an interagency group organized under the FBI, identified the visa revocation process as a potential homeland security vulnerability and developed an informal process for TSC to handle visa revocation cases (see Figure 1: The Visa Revocation Process in Effect from October through December 2003):

"As a result, it developed a process for TSC to coordinate the sharing of information on visa revocation cases. This process outlines responsibilities for representatives from State, CBP, ICE, and the FBI who are assigned to TSC. According to a TSC official, this process is designed to coordinate the efforts of these representatives, without relying on formal notifications transmitted among the agencies. When new names are added to the TIPOFF database, all the agency representatives receive this information at the same time. According to TSC’s new process, State personnel assigned to TSC determine if the person has a valid visa; CBP personnel determine if the individual may be in the country; and, if the individual is in the country, ICE and FBI personnel determine if they have open investigations of the individual. Because this process was developed after the October to December 2003 time period, we did not assess its effectiveness."

This GAO report had not been updated since 2004, so it’s hard to tell if this system is still in place. In its report, the GAO had concluded that there is no government-wide policy outlining roles and responsibilities for the visa revocation process, and State and DHS have not completed their discussions on legal and policy issues related to removing individuals with revoked visas from the United States (See Edson's testimony on this specific issue, also from 2004).

The most recent information I could locate on visa revocation comes from the testimony of Janice L. Jacobs, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs on December 9 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs:  

"The CLASSnamecheck system, which is updated daily, includes information from the Department of State, FBI, DHS, and intelligence from other agencies.  Also included in CLASS is derogatory information regarding known or suspected terrorists (KSTs) from the Terrorist Screening Database, which is maintained by the TSC and contains the names of terrorists nominated by all USG sources. Possible matches are reviewed by USG agencies in Washington, D.C., prior to any visa being issued.  Under a complementary program, new name entries in the Terrorist Screening Database are checked against records of previously issued valid visas, enabling us to revoke visas issued to KSTs.  Since September 11, 2001, we have revoked more than 1,700 visas of individuals about whom, subsequent to visa issuance, we received information that potentially connected the visa holder to terrorism."

That gives us a number but does not give us a much clearer look into this particular case, unfortunately, or the relevant interagency process. I am sure with the House and the Senate indicating their desire to hold hearings on this, we should learn more in January when the congressional session resumes.         

There is, of course, a lot of noise on this case right now including reports that authorities in Amsterdam are investigating claims that an accomplice may have helped Abdulmutallab board Flight 253 without a passport, possibly by claiming to be a Sudanese or Syrian refugee.  If that story pans out, I expect attention will shift quickly to the scrutiny of our refuge policies. 

Still, I hope that this case is not only a lesson, but a reason for top down reviews of our systems and processes and for continued vigilance. We are thankful that Abdulmutallab also called  Umar Farouk al-Nigiri - the Nigerian by Al Qaeda succeeded only in  setting fire to his leg and crotch in his failed murderous attempt.  But we already know that the bad guys only had to get it right once...

To our friends in the Arabian Peninsula, stay safe.

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