Border Security:

More Emphasis on State's Consular Safeguards Could Mitigate Visa Malfeasance Risks

GAO-06-115: Published: Oct 6, 2005. Publicly Released: Nov 7, 2005.

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Issuing a U.S. visa to a foreign citizen in exchange for money or something of value is a crime that can facilitate entry into the United States of unqualified persons, including those who may wish to do our country harm. Internal controls make it difficult for an employee to commit visa malfeasance without being detected, but, despite these safeguards, visa malfeasance does occur. GAO examined (1) State's internal controls to prevent nonimmigrant visa malfeasance and if they are being implemented and (2) visa malfeasance cases from 2001-2004 and factors cited by State and the Department of Justice (Justice) that contributed to visa malfeasance and affected investigations and prosecutions.

State has a set of internal controls to prevent visa malfeasance and has taken actions to improve them; however, these internal controls are not being fully and consistently implemented by the posts we visited. While State's controls are consistent with accepted control standards, we found noncompliance with required supervisory oversight at 6 of the 11 posts we visited. This included failure to inventory items used to issue visas, review visa decisions, and follow State's procedures when issuing visas for applicants referred by officers within the post. Lack of full compliance with internal controls increases vulnerability to visa malfeasance. State recently established two headquarters entities to monitor post visa operations. While stronger oversight should help strengthen compliance with internal controls, State has not developed automated software to sort and analyze abnormalities in visa issuances that could indicate potential malfeasance. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security substantiated 28 visa malfeasance cases between 2001 and 2004 involving U.S. employees. The suspects were fired, chose to resign, or were arrested. State investigators could not tell us how many opened cases were referred to Justice for possible prosecution because they had not been routinely collecting that information. In fact, their case records did not permit investigators to identify malfeasance trends or consular managers to identify internal control weaknesses needing attention. Justice's Public Integrity Section successfully prosecuted 10 U.S. government employees. State Diplomatic Security and Justice officials noted that their investigations and prosecutions were impeded by constraints on evidence gathering. Additionally, investigators can not obtain U.S. search warrants to search consular officer's offices or residences overseas. Justice and State are discussing the possibility of pursuing legal changes and other means to address these constraints.

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: The Secretary of State and the Attorney General should determine whether seeking additional overseas search authorities is warranted to facilitate investigations of visa malfeasance. If they determine that such authorities are warranted, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General should develop an implementation plan and notify the Congress of any required legislative changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Our October 2005 report on More Emphasis on State's Consular Safeguards Could Mitigate Visa Malfeasance Risks facilitated the Departments of Justice and State reaching agreement on recommending changing a law that will help protect the integrity of U.S. borders. In March 2005, we found that State's Diplomatic Security investigators could not obtain warrants to search the offices or residences of U.S. employees stationed overseas suspected of visa malfeasance because U.S. magistrates did not have the authority to issue warrants for overseas searches. Both Diplomatic Security and Justice Officials considered this a limitation in their ability to gather sufficient evidence to investigate and successfully prosecute serious public corruption offenses, such as visa fraud. However, according to Justice officials, there appeared to be some reluctance on the part of State's Consular Affairs office to investigate such allegations. After meeting with Justice and Diplomatic Security attorneys to get their perspectives, we arranged a meeting in late May 2005 with State's Diplomatic Security, Consular Affairs, and International Law attorneys to try to air concerns and reach a consensus, but while Consular Affairs appeared in agreement, the attorney for international law had concerns over the implementation of such authority. Subsequently, we recommended that the Secretary of State and Attorney General work out the need for and a means to implement such authority. The parties reached consensus on this issue and in January 2006, Justice recommended to the Judiciary's Advisory Committee on the Criminal Rules that appropriate amendments to the law be considered and voted on at their April 2006 meeting. These amendments would permit magistrates to issue warrants for property that is within the jurisdiction of the United States, but outside of any judicial district. If the Advisory Committee approves the amendments, there will be public comment and additional judicial branch review prior to the amendments becoming law.

    Recommendation: To emphasize the importance of internal controls to consular officers, section heads, and post managers, the Secretary of State should improve State's existing mechanisms to combat visa malfeasance. This could be accomplished by (1) improving the software available to the Vulnerability Assessment Unit to automatically sort data to identify and analyze abnormalities in post visa issuance statistics that could be an indication of malfeasance and (2) enhancing the investigative case tracking systems used by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in order to better identify trends and vulnerabilities in the visa process for use by investigators and consular managers.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On July 7, 2005, GAO briefed the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs on the results of our review of selected overseas consular offices' compliance with internal controls over the nonimmigrant visa process. We identified lax post management oversight of the consular function as an issue. The Assistant Secretary asked if we would provide her information and examples of where improvements were needed. She said that she would incorporate it into the Foreign Institute Training she regularly provides to Ambassadors and Deputy Chiefs of Missions on how to execute their oversight responsibilities over the consular function. We provided her the information that day and she has incorporated it into all levels--entry to ambassadorial--of consular training she conducts at the Institute.

    Recommendation: To emphasize the importance of internal controls to consular officers, section heads, and post managers, the Secretary of State should develop a strategy to achieve strict compliance with internal controls. The strategy should include a system to spot check compliance. The strategy should also include formalized procedures in Fraud Prevention Units to document how the post will address the risk of employee malfeasance and emphasize the importance of reporting suspected internal malfeasance to consular managers and post security officers.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our October 2005 report, ?More Emphasis on State's Consular Safeguards Could Mitigate Visa Malfeasance Risks?, we reported that to deter visa fraud, the State Department established Fraud Prevention Units at overseas posts and staffed the units with consular officers, generally on a part-time basis. The units are to detect external fraud and possible consular malfeasance. In September 2004, we asked State's Fraud Prevention Office what kind of training these fraud prevention managers received and were referred to the Foreign Service Training Institute. A review of Foreign Service training records revealed that very few officers in these positions had had any fraud prevention training offered by the institute. We discussed this issue with Consular officials in February 2005. In response, in April 2005, the Foreign Service Institute, increased its annual offerings of fraud prevention training from two to ten times a year. A recent update of this issue indicated that FSI is targeting individuals for this training and encouraging new consular officers to take it as part of their summer consular training.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State and the Attorney General should determine whether seeking additional overseas search authorities is warranted to facilitate investigations of visa malfeasance. If they determine that such authorities are warranted, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General should develop an implementation plan and notify the Congress of any required legislative changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Our October 2005 report ?More Emphasis on State's Consular Safeguards Could Mitigate Visa Malfeasance Risks? facilitated the Departments of Justice and State reaching agreement on recommending changing a law that will help protect the integrity of U.S. borders. In March 2005, we found that State's Diplomatic Security investigators could not obtain warrants to search the offices or residences of U.S. employees stationed overseas suspected of visa malfeasance because U.S. magistrates did not have the authority to issue warrants for overseas searches. Both Diplomatic Security and Justice Officials considered this a limitation in their ability to gather sufficient evidence to investigate and successfully prosecute serious public corruption offenses, such as visa fraud. However, according to Justice officials, there appeared to be some reluctance on the part of State's Consular Affairs office to investigate such allegations. After meeting with Justice and Diplomatic Security attorneys to get their perspectives, we arranged a meeting in late May 2005 with State's Diplomatic Security, Consular Affairs, and International Law attorneys to try to air concerns and reach a consensus, but while Consular Affairs appeared in agreement, the attorney for international law had concerns over the implementation of such authority. Subsequently, we recommended that the Secretary of State and Attorney General work out the need for and a means to implement such authority. The parties reached consensus on this issue and in January 2006, Justice recommended to the Judiciary's Advisory Committee on the Criminal Rules that appropriate amendments to the law be considered and voted on at their April 2006 meeting. These amendments would permit magistrates to issue warrants for property that is within the jurisdiction of the United States, but outside of any judicial district. If the Advisory Committee approves the amendments, there will be public comment and additional judicial branch review prior to the amendments becoming law.

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