Abdulmutallab, Visas Viper, and Visa Revocations

Terrorist Screening CenterImage via Wikipedia

Yesterday, Ian Kelly, the Department Spokesman talked about
the case of terrorist suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and the State
Department role in this incident. Excerpts below. You can read the whole thing here:

we issue the visa, and there comes – there is information subsequent to that
issuance, the State Department role is to pass that information on, which is
what we did after this November 19 visit. So we sent in what’s called a VISAS
VIPER cable. This is a system that was set up after November – September 11,
2001, and under this system, when we receive information that could cause the –
cause us concern, we send it in to the counterterrorism community for their
review. There was also set up, as you all know, the National Counterterrorism
Center. And this is the interagency process that reviews the information as
this information comes in.
I stop you –
the information in this VISAS VIPER cable was insufficient for this interagency
review process to make a determination that this individual’s visa should be
revoked. It wasn’t – it’s not – it’s insufficient, and it is not a State
Department determination per se in these kinds of issues under – let me give
you the name of the act of Congress – under the Enhanced Border Security and
Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002
, the State Department is mandated to utilize this
VISAS VIPER system when we get information, like we did on November 19.
MR. KELLY: […] Clearly, we need to review all of our
procedures, and that’s what the President has ordered the interagency community
to do. And Secretary Clinton is also going to ask the State Department,
primarily our consular division, to review all of our processes. We did what we
were supposed to do under this Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act.
But as you know, the President has ordered a complete view, and we’ll have to
see what comes out of that.
One of the issues we have to deal with is that we get
thousands of pieces of information that are not always completely accurate. I
mean, you have a lot of – what do you call them, poison pen messages, of people
trying to pass on derogatory information. So, I mean, we have to be careful
about when we put somebody on a watch list.
QUESTION: It’s the same subject, just the claim of responsibility
for this. Al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula just said it’s responsible for having
attempted this attack and said that they’re calling for the killing of all
Western embassy workers in the region. I don’t know if you guys know about
this. Have you done anything special in the region in light of this attempted
MR. KELLY: I have not heard this. I mean, obviously,
we take the security of our embassy and our – our embassies and our colleagues
extremely seriously. I mean, we’ll review this. If it indeed is a credible
threat, we’ll review it and see if we need to take action.

This may not be clear to folks but the VISAS VIPER telegrams
report on possible terrorists who are not current visa applicants for the
purpose of watchlisting them. For when they apply or reapply for visas.  As the regulations point
out, the primary goal of
the VISAS VIPER Program is to develop high quality usable records on possible
terrorists. It is essential to develop and report all available identifying
data on the subjects of VISAS VIPER telegrams. Derogatory information on a
suspected terrorist, regardless of its gravity, is of little value unless it
can be linked to that individual should he or she apply for a visa or for entry
into the United States (9 FAM
40.37 N7.1 Identification of Subject)
From LAT’s
today: “When he purchased his ticket from Lagos to Amsterdam on
Dec. 16, a Nigerian official said, his passport and U.S. visa were scanned and
his name was checked against a watch list. Despite his father’s intervention,
Abdulmutallab’s name hadn’t been added to either a 3,400-name no-fly list or a
14,000-name roster of persons who could be subjected to intensive searches. His
name was added to a 555,000-name list of
persons considered suspicious but less of a threat. Apparently he would have
received greater scrutiny if he applied for another visa. The problem was that
he already had one.”
Which brings us to the subject of visa revocations – for aliens suspected of terrorism connections.
A five-year old GAO report indicated that in
2004, the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), an interagency group organized
under the FBI, identified the visa revocation process as a potential homeland
security vulnerability and developed an informal process for TSC to handle visa
revocation cases (see Figure 1: The Visa
Revocation Process in Effect from October through December 2003):

“As a result,
it developed a process for TSC to coordinate the sharing of information on visa
revocation cases. This process outlines responsibilities for representatives from State, CBP, ICE,
and the FBI who are assigned to TSC. According to a TSC official, this process
is designed to coordinate the efforts of these representatives, without relying
on formal notifications transmitted among the agencies. When new names are added
to the TIPOFF database, all the agency representatives receive this information
at the same time. According to TSC’s new process, State personnel assigned to
TSC determine if the person has a valid visa; CBP personnel determine if the individual may be in the country;
and, if the individual is in the country, ICE and FBI personnel determine if
they have open investigations of the individual. Because this process was
developed after the October to December 2003 time period, we did not assess its

This GAO report had not been updated since 2004, so it’s
hard to tell if this system is still in place. In its report, the GAO had concluded
that there is no government-wide policy outlining roles and responsibilities
for the visa revocation process, and State and DHS have not completed their
discussions on legal and policy issues related to removing individuals with
revoked visas from the United States (See Edson’s testimony on this specific issue, also from 2004).
The most recent information I could locate on visa
revocation comes from the testimony of Janice
L. Jacobs, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs on December
9 before the U.S.
Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs:  
“The CLASSnamecheck
system, which is updated daily, includes information from the Department of
State, FBI, DHS, and intelligence from other agencies.  Also included in
CLASS is derogatory information regarding known or suspected terrorists (KSTs)
from the Terrorist Screening Database, which is maintained by the TSC and
contains the names of terrorists nominated by all USG sources. Possible
matches are reviewed by USG agencies in Washington, D.C., prior to any visa
being issued.  Under a complementary program, new name entries in the Terrorist Screening Database are checked against records of previously issued valid
visas, enabling us to revoke visas issued to KSTs.  Since September 11,
2001, we have revoked more than 1,700 visas of individuals about whom,
subsequent to visa issuance, we received information that potentially connected
the visa holder to terrorism.”
That gives us a
number but does not give us a much clearer look into this particular case,
unfortunately, or the relevant interagency process. I am sure with the House
and the Senate indicating their desire to hold hearings on this, we should
learn more in January when the congressional session resumes.         
There is, of course, a lot of noise on this case right now
including reports that authorities in Amsterdam
are investigating claims
that an accomplice may have helped Abdulmutallab
board Flight 253 without a passport, possibly by claiming to be a Sudanese or Syrian refugee.  If that story pans out, I
expect attention will shift quickly to the scrutiny of our refuge policies. 
Still, I hope that this case is not only a lesson, but a
reason for top down reviews of our systems and processes and for continued vigilance. We are thankful that Abdulmutallab also called  Umar Farouk al-Nigiri – the Nigerian by Al Qaeda succeeded only in  setting fire to his leg and crotch in his failed murderous attempt.  But we already know that the bad
guys only had to get it right once…

To our friends in the Arabian Peninsula, stay safe.
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