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Who provided the visas to the 9/11 hijackers? And, why?
I have been speaking out for many years about the CIA role at the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as I witnessed it near the end of the Reagan era. The Consulate at Jeddah, as news junkies everywhere know, was the revolving door through which 15 of the 9/11 hijackers entered the United States. Since that ugly day, bureaucratic turf wars and finger-pointing have been the rule in Washington, while the possibility of a full and impartial investigation slowly fades to zero.
My experience as Chief of the Visa Section in Jeddah (1987-88) persuaded me that until all CIA personnel have been removed from diplomatic cover, the State Department will be incapable of fulfilling its responsibilities. Mine has never been a welcome dissenting opinion. Any Foreign Service officer entertaining it today can look forward to a swift change of career. Far from reducing the influence of intelligence operations on day to day diplomacy, "Homeland Security," is doing exactly the opposite.
The ongoing avalanche of intelligence and security-related stories in the mainstream press since 9/11 has made any attempt to keep up with developments a full-time job. For personal and professional reasons, I read as much of this coverage as I can. When I read the following sentence in the Washington Post all my political and diplomatic alarm bells began ringing at once: "The State Department has stopped destroying unsuccessful immigration applications containing personal details and photographs , and is asking agencies like the FBI and CIA whether those files would be useful in terrorism investigations...".
For years, politically alert applicants for U.S. visas suspected that their names and personal information were being provided to US intelligence. The State Department has always flatly denied such allegations, citing a policy of complete confidentiality. After reading the Post story, I decided call a number of State Department contacts in whom I have confidence. To avoid reprisals against them, I am withholding their names, but the answers I received throw considerable light on the siege mentality now dominating the US attitude toward most of the world. They also give the lie to the old protestations of an information firewall between the U.S. diplomatic service, the CIA, and other intelligence and security agencies.
Stuart Patt, Press Officer at the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, called me and identified himself as a spokesman for the Bureau, saying that the basis for the call had been my asking questions about the visa process. He asked if he could be help. When I cited the Post story and requested clarification, he carefully rephrased the old official response. The State Department, said Patt, "strives to keep confidential" the content of visa application forms, both the old OF-156 [State's old non-immigrant visa application] and the new DS 156 and 157 [the new non-immigrant visa application form and the new supplemental non-immigrant visa form]. He added that the public may not see this material and it may not be given out to the news media or foreign governments. But, as Patt explained and my other sources confirmed, there are loopholes big enough to drive a tractor-trailer through.
According to State Department regulation and practice, Patt noted, if "legitimate" law enforcement personnel "need" the information, the Bureau of Consular Affairs or a consular officer abroad may provide it. Law enforcement organizations run the gamut from federal agencies such as the CIA and FBI at the top to state and local police forces at the bottom. Another experienced consular officer [who retired as an FSO-1, the highest rank possible outside the Senior Foreign Service] echoed this, stating that sharing information was nothing new and that the practice had operated from the inception of the CIA during the Truman Administration.
A second consular officer [a retired Minister-Counselor who had served as Principal Officer at posts in Austria, Italy, and Haiti] confirmed this. What is new, according to Mr. Patt, is that there is now a 21-day waiting period while various agencies circulate and review those applications from citizens of countries on the U.S. terrorism list. Additionally, these visa applicants must complete the now-mandatory and more intrusive DS Form 157 [supplemental non-immigrant visa application form], which includes questions on military service, national ID card data, spelling of the applicant's name in his native alphabet, and depth of scientific knowledge relating to weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Patt declined to say which agencies now routinely review visa applications or what criteria guide their analyses. He refused to talk about the mechanics of handling the visa application, but noted that information contained in an application is cross-checked against databases managed by various agencies.
Patt then went on to say that State was requiring more interviews than ever before. He added that the visa process is now seen as an important part of "National Security" and, therefore, visa applications are being given closer scrutiny. A high-ranking retired consular officer [who had been Minister-Counselor in the Senior Foreign Service and had served at Posts from Bangkok to Beirut, functioning primarily as a visa officer] stated that Legal Attaches (FBI officials stationed in US embassies) may review visa applications, although they "ought to" supply a written request before doing so. CIA involvement, he added, seemed to vary from place to place. For example, he said, one post (Jeddah?) gave all visa applications to the Agency to check. Regardless of Agency involvement at the point of entry, he said he believed the intelligence agencies had other ways of learning the names of visa applicants transmitted to the Department of State in Washington, D.C.
The paper visa forms, he continued, used to be a thorn in the side of the average consular officer. Because they had to be destroyed in a regular sequence, paperwork cut into the time for interviewing applicants. Now, he said, the goal is to keep the documents as long as possible. Another highly-experienced and well-placed consular officer [who had once been Director of the Visa Office and had worked in visas in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Far East] commented that, in the past, immigrant visa applications were held for 6 months and then should have been destroyed. All non-immigrant visa applications, both those granted and refused, were held for 2 years.
The majority of unsuccessful visa applicant are denied on the grounds that the applicant is an intending immigrant as defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act, § 214(b). In other words, the applicant is seeking entry based on false pretenses and will probably attempt to remain in the United States, regardless of the stated reasons for desiring to visit. If the applicant had been refused on grounds other than the usual, forms would be held for 10 years. If the applicant was deemed a terrorist, the form would be held until the applicant was 90 or 100 years old. Now, he expected that all forms would be held indefinitely in digital format forever (and transferred to CD-ROM).
While these State Department rules and regulations seem entirely logical and reasonable, the widely noted capriciousness of the terrorist nation list illustrates the underlying problems. Since one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, it seems only reasonable that the U.S. public should be entitled to an investigation into at least two questions: Who provided the visas to the 9/11 hijackers? And, why?
The retired consular officer, a linguist, mentioned earlier as Principal Officer in Italy, Austria, and Haiti claimed that he never let the CIA or DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) have access to the consular section's files, noting that information on the application should only be disclosed by court order. He qualified this by adding that the consular officer should also exercise discretion if she or he becomes aware of criminal activity or a danger to "national security."
Further erasing the illusion of confidentiality, the former Visa Office Director noted that visa application information may be shared with foreign police departments and courts of "friendly countries" upon request. He suggested that the request had to be specific and be made in the form of a diplomatic note. He concluded that visa applicants should expect no confidentiality. While the information would not be given to the local newspapers, it was freely available to US government agencies, particularly those involved in police or intelligence work.
Our consular officer/linguist, whose career spanned 30 years, commented that a visa application is about as complicated as a library card application. Consular officers have little opportunity to check for accuracy. Additionally, he said that the visa waiver program, a diplomatic courtesy we extend to countries with historically low visa fraud rates, presented an obvious route for anyone attempting to avoid scrutiny. Someone from a country designated an official enemy could legitimately or otherwise acquire the necessary passport in a third country participating in the visa waiver program. The AVLOS program (Automated Visa Look-Out System) and CLASS (Consular Look-out And Support System) through which the consular officers check the names of visa applicants are only as good as the information in the database, he said. The State Department database contains the names of persons refused a visa, but is unlikely to have the data available to the FBI, CIA, or INS which have historically shared only some of their information, he said. He offered the somewhat contradictory opinion that he doubts allegations of the CIA access to the torrent of names flooding the wires to Washington, but implied that State Department telecommunications sometimes traveled over CIA circuits.
The former Director of the Visa Office commented that, in the past everyone was interviewed. Later, to reduce the workload as more and more people traveled to the US, interviews became more selective, exempting those, including the Saudis, deemed good visa risks. (For the State Department, a good visa risk means the applicant is very likely to return to their home country or place of application.) Since 9/11 detailed interviews are required for all applicants, and applications are down 20% Fees have jumped from $20 to about $100, and visa issuance, particularly for certain countries, takes longer now as well.
The contradictory objectives of Foggy Bottom and Langley make them uncomfortable bedfellows at best. When a major covert operation is underway, the contradiction reaches the pitch of absurdity. Depending upon who you talk to, the CIA and other intelligence agencies comprise at least one-third of all personnel at U.S. Foreign Service Posts. A member of the State Department Inspector General's office and a former CIA Station Chief both told me the spooks usually average a third of all State Department personnel abroad. At Jeddah and other Posts, it has been much higher, between one-half and nearly all staff. While legitimate State Department officers are conscientiously attempting to fulfill their responsibilities, other officials within the same Post, who appear to be State Department employees but are really not, are overruling their decisions, taking orders from another chain of command for which diplomacy as such is nothing but a useful fig leaf.
SECURITY FOR WHOM?
Thus far I have examined only the means by which visitors to the U.S. are screened. But my experience in the State Department convinced me years ago that for U.S. policy makers, means are not always what they seem, and it is ends, not means, that really matter. 9/11 has only strengthened this conviction. I have repeatedly been asked by journalists if I believe that the CIA was "involved" in 9/11. Such questions are sometimes attempts to discredit me as a "conspiracy theorist." I am nothing of the sort, and my answer is simple: when I was Chief of the Non-immigrant Visa Section at the United States Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I watched dozens, if not hundreds of visa applicants who could provide no legitimate reason for visiting the US, obtain visas without difficulty. Official statements notwithstanding, the CIA was running the consulate, and protests by mere State Department employees were fruitless. In my case, such protests cost me my job.
The 15 hijackers who obtained visas at Jeddah almost certainly received them courtesy of the CIA. It is not likely that they shared their travel plans for September 11, 2001 with their friends and sponsors at Langley. But it is very likely that the visas came along with their services as hired guns in some U.S. covert operation, most probably the war in Afghanistan. The CIA brings raw recruits from all over the world to learn the finer arts of political murder and coups d'etat, before sending them off to the killing fields. The ends, as George Kennan so patiently explained in his famous "Long Telegram," justify the means. Perhaps the Agency is genuinely sorry that these particular operatives went "off message," but after all, as every Director of Central Intelligence has been at pains to explain, there are risks to every worthy enterprise. A logician might say that the CIA was a necessary, but not a determinate cause of 9/11.
FROM SCREENING TO TROLLING
Pre-9/11, applying for a visa meant providing data about oneself to the US government. Now the US is offering visas, permanent residence and citizenship to persons willing to provide information on "suspected terrorists." Some 30 million people a year visit the United States, in pursuit of business, leisure or education; tens of thousands more enter illegally. This is an enormous pool of potential intelligence recruits.
John J. Tkacik, a former consular officer and now a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation, wants to improve spying and compilation of files abroad. He is proposing that the inaptly-named Department of Homeland Security (DHS) station supervisory "attachés" at American embassies and visa-issuing consulates abroad, in order to "provide...oversight as well as continuous monitoring and training and indoctrination on visa issues." The "attaché" would have "statutory authority to overrule visa officer approvals and refusals, at least on Homeland Security grounds." Tkacik also proposed that DHS supervise and fund a program at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute to "indoctrinate" junior Foreign Service Officers. Part of the Consular Course, it would be developed in conjunction with the CIA and FBI. Much has been made of the Visa Express system which the State Department used in Saudi Arabia. Visa Express permitted travel agents to prepare and forward visa applications to the consulates and embassy and waived the requirement for an interview with a consular officer. In reality, Visa Express made little difference, as the personal appearance requirement had already been dropped for the great majority of applications in Saudi Arabia. The new policy of requiring everyone to apply in person simply multiplies the opportunities for "intelligence gathering".
The CIA was (and is) heavily involved in Foreign Service posts in the Kingdom, occupying one entire floor of the embassy (possibly two), assigning case officers to high-ranking positions in Dhahran, comprising nearly the entire American staff of the consulate in Jeddah. So "personal appearances" means more opportunity for Langley. The Justice Department wants to go further. In June of 2002, it proposed creating files on 100,000 Arab and/or Muslim holders of U.S. visas, beginning with visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, the Sudan, and Syria. Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, important loci of terrorist activity were added only recently. Israel, another terrorist center, has been omitted entirely. The dossiers will be created at the port of entry and will include credit card and telephone numbers. Visa holders already living here, such as legal permanent residents, would be registered, photographed, and fingerprinted as well. "Antiterrorism teams" of federal, state, and local officials would help immigration officers accomplish this. New arrivals would also be required to register their presence with INS after 30 days. The Justice Department has already begun implementing the plan. Students, workers, and "other men" from Iran, Iraq, Libya, the Sudan, Syria and additional countries are being or have been fingerprinted and photographed. The fingerprints will be checked "to determine if they are wanted in connection with terrorism or other crimes." Men 16 and older must register with INS, presenting travel documents and proof of residence. They must also be interviewed and they "must check in with authorities once a year."
In the final analysis, there appears to be quiet acceptance of an increasingly intrusive government. Some of our neighbors are not so blasé. In October of last year, the Canadian government issued a "Travel Advisory" for the United States. Warning Canadian citizens born in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen "to consider carefully whether they should travel to the United States for any reason...[as] they could be subject to...special scrutiny."
In the final analysis, "Homeland Security" will do little or nothing to improve the safety of the average citizen. It will however enormously increase the level of surveillance and intrusion of the federal government in daily life, especially the lives of those who fit a certain ethnic profile, namely Middle Eastern or South Asian Muslim men. Many hundreds already languish in INS jails without due process. The likelihood that they posed any threat to national security is almost certainly nil. But we're not allowed to find out. Meanwhile, the subversion and abuse of U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, in pursuit of the shadowy and often criminal objectives of intelligence and covert operations will continue unabated. If the John Tkaciks get their wishes, it will be greatly enhanced.
WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS...
The people of the United States rightly expect the Department of State to do all that is humanly possible to ensure that overseas visitors intend us no harm. A minority surely recognizes that the current climate of fear is driving changes that may ultimately prove self-destructive. A democracy and a police state, after all, are usually understood as polar opposites. What very few Americans understand is the pathological Cold War mindset of those who have shaped U.S. foreign policy since the middle of the last century. It is a worldview with little interest in "security" per se. For those who exercise ultimate power, success is measured by the bottom lines on certain corporate quarterly reports. These numbers represent transcendent ends which have justified and continue to justify any and every means imaginable, from rubber-stamping illegitimate visa applications to full scale massacre. Right-wing commentators tell us that Islamic clerics condemning the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are simply deluded demagogues and fanatics yet no serious student of history can really be surprised that the events of August 6 and 9, 1945 have been neither forgotten nor forgiven.
For the national security elite, as they are sometimes called, 9/11 was at best an anomaly, at worst an unfortunate side-effect of business as usual. Not everyone outside the beltway sees it quite like that.
Mike Springmann joined the State Department in 1986. As Chief of the Non-Immigrant Visa Section at the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (1987-88), he witnessed a regular pattern of violations of State Department guidelines for the processing of visa applications. Since leaving the Foreign Service in 1992, Springmann has spoken out about these violations. His article The Hand the Rules the Visa Machine Rocks the World, describing what he saw in Jeddah, was published in CovertAction Quarterly, number 71, Winter 2001. He has been interviewed repeatedly by, among others, BBC, CBC, Fox News, Canal Plus (France) and RAI (Italy). He practices immigration, employment and national security law in Washington, D.C. Copyright J. Michael Springmann 2003. For fair use only/ pour usage équitable seulement .