December 22, 2003 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

Coordinate Visa Security: Homeland Security Needs Authority To Keep Nation Safe

If we learned nothing else from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, we should have learned the critical importance of keeping visas out of the hands of terrorists.

Since then, both the Bush administration and Congress have made visa security a priority issue. Together, they passed a series of laws - the 2001 Patriot Act, the 2002 Homeland Security Act, and the 2002 Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act among them - designed to gather and use intelligence to prevent visas from falling into the wrong hands and stop terrorists from entering the country. But despite all that, we still don't have a competent, coordinated, cogent approach to both visa security and the intelligence gathering necessary to support prudent visa issuance.

The new laws do, however, provide an adequate framework to address the problems that enabled all 19 of the Sept. 11 hijackers to enter the United States on nonimmigrant visas and allowed them to receive a total of 23 visas from five consular posts over a four-year period.

The laws - properly applied - would address the lapses in port-of-entry and border control screening as well as the lax enforcement the terrorists exploited, plus provide the necessary intelligence to prevent terrorists from using fraudulent U.S. visas, green cards and passports to enter the country.

The problem is that the system is not in place. Critical information technology and personnel training programs have not gotten off the drawing boards. The administration has dragged its feet on some initiatives, and congressional oversight has not proven adequate to ensure the complex array of initiatives and programs reach fruition.

Congress could help by establishing standing committees in the House and Senate to deal with homeland security legislation. The administration could help by making some organizational changes that should produce better information sharing.

For instance, the Office of Visa Services should be transferred in whole from the State Department to the Homeland Security Department. The Homeland Security Act gave the secretary of Homeland Security exclusive authority to issue regulations and administer the visa program. However, the consular offices that perform visa services remained part of the State Department. This was a mistake. Moving the visa office to Homeland Security would enable the department to focus on making the visa function more responsive to homeland security needs.

In the last year, the administration has undertaken two major initiatives to improve intelligence sharing. In May, it established the Terrorism Threat Integration Center (TTIC) - a central location where all terrorist-related intelligence is gathered, coordinated and assessed. TTIC's director reports to the CIA director. Later in the year, the White House established the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), under the FBI, to consolidate all terrorist watch lists and provide around-the-clock access to local, state and federal authorities.

Homeland Security, which has primary authority for visa enforcement, ought to have primary control over the ways information is shared. Now, the agency amounts to little more than another intelligence end user, competing with other members of the national security community for resources. As the biggest consumer of intelligence and the agency with the most at stake from it, Homeland Security should control both TTIC and TSC. This way, it can be certain of getting the information it needs in the manner and at the speed required to fulfill its responsibilities.

Without this move, disjointed efforts at intelligence sharing will lead to regular power struggles between intelligence agencies and possibly leave the nation in worse condition than before Sept. 11. It could add layers of bureaucracy without solving the problem.

Most experts agree that lack of intelligence sharing provided a major loophole through which the terrorists passed en route to their successful attacks on Sept. 11. Congress and the administration responded quickly and admirably. Let's make sure their hard work isn't lost to shoddy implementation.

James Carafano is a senior research fellow in defense and homeland security and Ha Nguyen conducts homeland security research at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared on FederalTimes.com