Border Security:

Visa Process Should Be Strengthened as an Antiterrorism Tool

GAO-03-132NI: Published: Oct 21, 2002. Publicly Released: Oct 21, 2002.

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Citizens of other countries seeking to enter the United States temporarily for business, tourism, and other reasons generally must apply for and obtain a U.S. travel document, called a nonimmigrant visa, at U.S. embassies or consulates abroad before arriving at U.S. ports of entry. State Department consular officers issued 7.6 million visas in fiscal year 2001. In deciding who should and should not receive a visa, consular officers must perform a risk assessment that balances the need to facilitate legitimate travel with the need to protect the United States against potential terrorists and to deter others whose entry is considered likely to be harmful to U.S. national interests. Prior to the September 11 attacks, the State Department's visa operations focused primarily on screening applicants to determine whether they intended to work or reside illegally in the United States. In making decisions on who should receive a visa, consular officers relied on the State Department's consular 'lookout' system, a name check system that incorporates information from many agencies, as the primary basis for identifying potential terrorists. The State Department gave overseas consular sections substantial discretion in determining the level of scrutiny applied to visa applications and encouraged streamlined procedures to provide customer services and deal with a large workload. Since September 11, the U.S. government has introduced some changes to strengthen the visa process. Further, the department began seeking new or additional interagency clearances on selected applicants to screen out terrorists, although these checks were not always completed by other U.S. agencies in a thorough or timely manner.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To address visa issues requiring coordination and actions across several agencies, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security should coordinate with the appropriate agencies to reexamine visa operations on a regular basis to ensure that the operations are effectively contributing to the overall national strategy for homeland security and that they reflect changes in the security environment, the availability of new information technologies, and organizational changes that may be implemented if a Department of Homeland Security is established.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security has taken no action to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To address visa issues requiring coordination and actions across several agencies, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security should coordinate with the appropriate agencies to consider reassessing, on an interagency basis, visas issued before the implementation of new security checks, particularly for selected categories of persons from selected countries who may pose security concerns.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security has not taken action on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To address visa issues requiring coordination and actions across several agencies, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security should coordinate with the appropriate agencies to reassess interagency headquarters' security checks on visa applicants to verify that all the checks are necessary and to ensure that appropriate checks are carried out promptly, and provide clear guidance to overseas posts and headquarters agencies on their roles in conducting these checks.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2002, GAO recommended that the U.S. government reassess interagency headquarters' security checks on visa applicants to verify that all checks are necessary, and to ensure that they are carried out promptly (GAO-03-132NI). In response to our recommendations and continued work in this area, State has developed more than 80 standard operating procedures to ensure that consular officers properly review visa applications, conduct security checks, effectively fulfill their national security responsibilities, and have a step-by-step, unambiguous guide for all procedures. In addition, State Department data indicate that processing times for all security checks generally declined between fiscal years 2002 and 2006. Regarding a specific security check, in February 2004, GAO reported that it took about 67 days for the State Department to process Visas Mantis cases and notify consular posts of the results. GAO recommended that the Secretary of State, in coordination with the Director of the FBI and the Secretary of Homeland Security, reduce the length of time it takes for science students and scholars to obtain visas by developing and implementing a plan to improve the Visas Mantis process. From February through November 2004, these agencies took several actions to improve the Mantis program. Data provided by the State Department and consular posts we visited show that these actions have resulted in a significant decline in the amount of time it takes to process a Mantis check. For example, in February 2004, the average time needed to clear a Mantis case was 56.74 days. By November 2004, that average had dropped to 14.89 days.

    Recommendation: To address visa issues requiring coordination and actions across several agencies, the Assistant to the President of Homeland Security should coordinate with the appropriate agencies to establish governmentwide guidelines on the level of evidence needed to deny a visa on terrorism grounds under Immigration and Nationality Act section 212 (a)(3)(B).

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agency has not taken action to address this recommendation and does not currently have plans to do so.

    Recommendation: Based on the new policy and guidelines, the Secretary of State should revamp and expand consular training courses to place more emphasis on detecting potential terrorists by improved interview techniques, greater recognition of fraudulent documents, greater understanding of terrorism trends and local culture and conditions, and better utilization of the Consular Lookout and Support System name check system.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2002, GAO reported that training for new consular officers was focused on detecting illegal immigrants through the visa process. GAO recommended that the Secretary of State revamp and expand consular training courses to place more emphasis on detecting potential terrorists. Using GAO's report as a primary guide in strengthening the visa process as an anti-terrorism tool, State developed and enhanced training on analytic interviewing techniques, fraud prevention, counter-terrorism, and use of the class name check system.

    Recommendation: Based on the new policy and guidelines, the Secretary of State should perform a fundamental reassessment of staffing and language skill requirements for visa operations in light of the current and the anticipated future number of visa applications and, if appropriate, request additional human resources to ensure that consular sections have adequate staff with necessary language skills.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2005, as in October 2002, GAO recommended that the Secretary of State develop a comprehensive plan to address vulnerabilities in consular staffing worldwide, including an analysis of staffing requirements and shortages, foreign language proficiency requirements, and fraud prevention needs, among other things--the plan should systematically determine priority positions that must be filled worldwide based on the relative strategic importance of posts and positions and realistic assumptions of available staff resources. In commenting on that report, the Department of State disagreed with our recommendation that it prepare a comprehensive plan to address vulnerabilities in consular staffing. We continue to believe it is incumbent on the department to conduct a worldwide analysis to identify high-priority posts and positions, such as supervisory consular positions in posts with high-risk applicant pools or those with high workloads and long wait times for applicant interviews.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the risk-based approach to visa decision-making, the Secretary of State, in consultation with appropriate agencies, should develop more comprehensive, risk-based guidelines and standards on how consular officers should use the visa process as a screen against potential terrorists, including the factors to consider in assessing risks, the level of scrutiny of visa applications, the information needed to approve and deny a visa, and the degree of discretion to waive interviews and other visa checks and to limit the duration of visa validity.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2002, GAO reported that the Department of State had not issued comprehensive policy guidance regarding how consular officers should react to the heightened border security concerns following the September 11, 2001, attacks. GAO recommended that the Secretary of State develop more comprehensive, risk-based guidelines on how consular officers should use the visa process as a screen against potential terrorists. In response to GAO's recommendation, State has developed more than 80 standard operating procedures to ensure that consular officers properly review visa applications, effectively fulfill their national security responsibilities, and have a step-by-step, unambiguous guide for all procedures. In addition, State's Bureau of Consular Affairs established Consular Management Assistance Teams to visit posts and reinforce standard operating procedures and management practices.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the risk-based approach to visa decision-making, the Secretary of State, in consultation with appropriate agencies, should develop a clear policy on the priority attached to addressing national security concerns through the visa process, including how this priority should be balanced with the desire to facilitate legitimate travel, provide timely customer service, and manage workload.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2003, the Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs, issued guidance called the "Visa Processing Roadmap", citing GAO-03-132NI as a primary guide in strengthening the visa process. The guidance states, "Our first priority must and will remain ensuring our nation's security." Recently, GAO observed consular officers and noted that indeed, national security was viewed as the highest priority when issuing visas (GAO-05-589).

    Recommendation: To address visa issues requiring coordination and actions across several agencies, the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security should coordinate with the appropriate agencies to ensure that law enforcement and intelligence agencies promptly provide information to the State Department on persons who may pose a security risk and, therefore, should not receive a visa.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since GAO's 2002 report, executive branch agencies and Congress have taken steps to increase the amount of information available to consular officers on persons who may pose a security risk and, therefore, should not receive a visa. In September 2005, we reported that, with cooperation from other federal agencies, the Department of State has increased the amount of information available to consular officers in State's visa look-out database. Name-check records from the intelligence community have increased fivefold from 48,000 in September 2001 to approximately 260,000 in June 2005, according to consular officials. Moreover, consular officials told us that, as of the fall of 2004, the look-out database contained approximately 8 million records from the FBI. In addition, State has developed more efficient methods of acquiring certain data from law enforcement databases. For example, State established a direct computer link with the FBI to send descriptive information from the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) to CLASS on a daily basis. In addition, Section 403 of the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 directs the Attorney General and the FBI to provide State with access to extracts of certain files containing descriptive information for the purpose of determining whether a visa applicant has a criminal history record contained in the NCIC Interstate Identification Index. However, we reported that information sharing at U.S. overseas posts between the consular sections and the law enforcement and intelligence communities varied. While we found that some posts had frequent communications, others had little or no communication. To ensure that consular officers have access to all relevant information on known or suspected terrorists, we recommended that the Secretary of State further encourage interactions between consular sections, law enforcement officials, and other security officials at post to increase information sharing with consular officers on terrorism related issues relevant to the visa process, including regional or post-specific terrorism trends. In response to our recommendation, on December 24, 2005, the Department of State issued a cable reminding all chiefs of mission to ensure that all agencies at post keep consular officers informed of terrorist trends or travel patterns affecting their host country. In particular, the cable noted that post management should encourage regular exchange of information between consular sections and relevant agencies at post on fraud and law enforcement issues in country, as well as economic, political, and security trends that may have an impact on consular work.

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