Sen. Rand Paul Says VSP Program “Putting U.S. In Grave Danger”
By Ellen Cannon
Senator Rand Paul(R-KY) grew up in the tranquil college town of Bowling Green, Kentucky. A Grand Jury in Bowling Green recently charged two men, Waad Ramadan Alwan, 30, and Mohaanad Shareef Hammadi, 23 in a 23 count indictment with conspiring to send weapons and money to al-Queda in Iraq. Alwan is also charged with attacking American soldiers in Iraq. As a new senator on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Senator Rand Paul wants to know “how two Iraqi refugees, one who was previously held for attempting to bomb American troops, were allowed to enter the U.S.? In terms of homeland security policy, he is pressing to learn about the impact of the current visa process (VSP) for immigrants and non-immigrants on national security; the passenger pre-screening and screening programs that have been implemented to secure international flights bound for the U.S. and the watchlisting systems that resulted in his home town being turned upside down as a result of the proposed terror trial that will soon take place.(Ellen Cannon, “KY’s terrorism case pits Senator McConnell Against A.G. Holder, icedjamb.com 6/17/11) Senator Paul contends the present Visa Security Program(VSP) “puts the U.S. in grave danger.”
Of particular import to Senator Rand Paul, who sits on the House Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, is the functioning of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program and visa entrée program. Sen. Paul is concerned how two men spent several years in Bowling Green, plotting to help Al Qaeda attack American soldiers in Iraq, while federal officials unknowingly had evidence to link one of the alleged terrorists to a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2005.
Alwan’s fingerprints were lifted off an improvised explosive devise near Bayki ,Iraq, in September 2005. In order to enter under refugee status, “he had to provide a set of fingerprints for a security check. The DHS acknowledged that authorities failed to connect the fingerprints until January. (Ellen Cannon, icedjamb.com July 17 2011).
According to the AP, the FBI would not say how the two men were granted status nor would they address why it took so long to match Alwan’s fingerprints to those lifted off the IED. Homeland security officials did tell the AP, that the gaps were filled in at DHS as a result of the Christmas Day bombing in 2009. Following that incident”DHS started comparing applicant information against a broader set of data after the arrest of Uman Farouk Abdulmutallab “ (AP June 2/11)
Senator Paul is far from convinced that the “gaps” in the visa program have been filled in. He has called for a hearing on this matter. His staff has received a classified briefing from the FBI, National Counterterrorism Center and others intelligence on the matter.
Senator Paul has contacted Senator Lieberman, (I-Conn.), Chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee and Ranking member, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) to conduct hearings on the Visa Security Program (VSP)
The senators have responded to Senator Paul, tentatively setting the date of the hearing for July 13. “We share your belief that there must be a robust screening process for potential visa and refugees entering the United States.” Their letter to Senator Paul stated that the hearing’s witnesses will include officials from the departments of state and homeland security. Its focus will be on efforts to identify and prevent terrorist travel.”(Bruce Schreiner,AP, 6/24/11)
On April 21, 2011 Senators Lieberman and Collins released a statement clearly agreeing that the issue of visas posed a “high risk” to the nation. They said, “We are dismayed that a key federal program to prevent terrorist travel is driven by slow implementation, insufficient operating guidelines, and inter-agency disagreements. These shortcomings have led to uneven implementation of the program and confusion among its participants.”
After the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on December 25, 2009, by a Nigerian man who obtained a U.S. visa, Lieberman and Collins asked the GAO to assess the effectiveness of the VSP. The programs’ 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.(April 21, 2011, hsgac.senate.gov/public/index)
The Visa security Program (VSP) is now eight years old. It 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. Senators Lieberman and Collins requested a GAO report on the VSP program. The GAO report indicated a disappointing and troubling picture of the Visa Security Program.
A huge gap in the VSP program, according to the GAO report, is that out of 216 consular posts that are functioning; only 19 were issuing visas; and 11 of the 20 highest risk posts identified by the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security have no VSP presence at all.(April 21, 2011, hsgac. senate.gov/public/index)
Equally disturbing, according to the GAO report, “is the limited guidance from DHS and State “which has led to, “confusion and inconsistency among consular posts. Training of consular officers varies from post to post and doesn’t even exist in some posts. Evaluating the program’s effectiveness is further hampered because ICE does not produce reports assessing VSP’s performance, and the data that ICE does collect is unreliable. The GAO 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.”
On May 17, 2011 Senators Lieberman and Collins issued another statement on visas, with particular attention to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program. ESTA screens travelers from so-called “visa waiver countries” against terrorist and violent criminal databases. Based on GAO report on this system, Lieberman and Collins noted there was commendable progress but they “continue to be concerned that DHS has yet to begin electronically sharing fingerprint information about serous and violent criminals with visa waiver countries, as required by law.”(May 17, 2011, hsgac.senate.gov,/public/index)
Although ESTA was created by the 9/11 Commission and passed by Congress in 2007, Senator Collins underscored serious structural aspects which she labeled as “deeply troubling”. “It is troubling to learn that DHS is not meeting all the congressional security requirements for the Visa Waiver Program since this is a key tool to prevent terrorists from traveling to our nation. DHS must provide greater oversight of the program and full implementation of al information sharing agreements with partner countries.”(hsag.senate.gov/public/index)
Most recently Senator Paul expressed serious concern over the student visa program. He suggested the program was not doing a thorough job on those who are coming from Middle Eastern countries who he thinks “must be vetted before entry into the United States. Regarding the intersection of visas and national security he stated, “the role of the federal government in the war on terror must include the ability to secure our borders and keep out those who wish to do harm to us.”(Andrew Robinson, The Daily News, June 24, 2011)