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105 Shouldn't Have Received U.S. Visas, Inquiry Finds

Their names were on government lists of suspected terrorists. An official says only two made it into the country, however, and have left without incident.

November 27, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Visas were issued to 105 foreign men who should have been prevented from entering the United States because their names appeared on government lists of suspected terrorists, congressional investigators have found.

The visas have been revoked by the State Department. A federal law enforcement official, speaking Tuesday on condition of anonymity, said the revocation prevented 100 of the men from entering the United States, while three others were turned away at the U.S. border. Two made it into the country but have since left without incident, the official said.

Officially, the Justice Department said it was reviewing the matter "to verify the status of each of the visas in question."

Under a security system called "Visas Condor" that was created in November 2001, State Department applications for visas to enter the United States from certain national groups were to be checked against possible terrorist names in FBI and CIA databases. Men in these groups aged 16 to 45 were required to wait up to 30 days for the check before a visa could be issued.

However, the Government Accounting Office found that until recently the name-check system did not work properly because responsibility for it shifted among the Justice Department and FBI, the CIA, the State Department and the multi-agency Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force formed by President Bush in October 2001.

Few names initially forwarded by the State Department, known as "cables," were checked by either the CIA or FBI, congressional investigators said.

By April 2002, when the terrorism task force assumed control of the system, the FBI had a backlog of 8,000 unchecked names from the State Department. Of the 38,000 Condor applications subsequently processed through Aug. 1, 2002, about 280 names turned up on the anti-terrorism lists.

The State Department was given a refusal recommendation for 200 visa applicants, but that came after the 30-day hold had expired -- meaning that the visas had already been issued. Because of misspelled or duplicate names, GAO officials now believe these visas were actually issued to 105 men whose names appear on the anti-terrorism lists.

In many cases, U.S. officials say the refusal recommendation was made simply because there wasn't enough information available about the applicant. But it remains possible that some of the men had real terrorist connections.

Much of the information about the situation was made public last month in a GAO report addressing broader visa questions, but it was largely overlooked. The Chicago Tribune reported on the matter in Tuesday's editions.

Justice Department officials had no comment, but in a response to the GAO report, a senior official said the FBI and the terrorism task force have taken steps to eliminate the backlog of names and work more closely with the State Department on streamlining the process.

Under another change that was made in September, the FBI has the initial authority to check the names, then sends those with a possible match to the State Department, which has the CIA perform another screening for terrorist connections.

"We are confident that our handling of Condor cables will remain responsive and timely, without sacrificing security," wrote Robert Diegelman, acting assistant attorney general for administration.

State Department officials hope to reduce review time for the Condor applications for those with no FBI records to 10 days or fewer.

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