The Week in Homeland Security: Visa Security in Focus on 9/11 Anniversary

Sep 10, 2012 Issues: Defense and Homeland Security

On the 11-year anniversary of 9/11, one House panel will be looking at whether the government has done a good enough job closing the loopholes that allowed al Qaeda hijackers to travel to the United States.

“Curtailing the ability of terrorists to travel to the United States can be one of the most effective counterterrorism tools,” said Michigan Republican Candice S. Miller, chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security. “According to the 9/11 Commission Report, the 9/11 hijackers passed through U.S. border security 68 times, highlighting the need to strengthen border security and visa issuance policy.”

Miller’s subcommittee will hear testimony from witnesses including Kelli Ann Walther, the Department of Homeland Security’s top official for screening coordination, and Charles K. Edwards, the department’s acting inspector general, at 10 a.m.

Since 9/11, the process of screening foreign nationals traveling to the United States has gone through a thorough overhaul.

“The department has made progress in evaluating admissibility of foreign nationals before they travel to the United States. The level of cooperation among components that conduct overseas screening is high,” the inspector general’s office said in a 2011 report. “Headquarters support offices have long-term plans to streamline access to information in the department’s data systems, and improve screening and data analysis capabilities.”

However, officials from the office have found consistent problems with the system over the past decade, including resource and technological challenges. Information is fragmented among several different data systems, and cross-referencing can be laborious.

The system has also experienced a few high-profile failures, notably the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot, where Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate an “underwear bomb” on a flight over Detroit. When boarding the plane in Amsterdam, Abdulmutallab used a valid U.S. passport. He wasn’t prohibited from coming to America, despite a report his father made to CIA officers in Nigeria the previous month.

“Although progress has been made, the 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot exposed additional weaknesses in our efforts to prevent terrorists from obtaining a visa, or board a plane headed for the U.S.,” Miller said. “Our hearing will examine the progress made since then to strengthen this outer layer of border security.”

Visa security also came up more recently, when a member of a designated foreign terrorist organization obtained a visa and traveled to Washington in June. Hani Nour Eldin, an admitted member of the Egyptian Islamic Group who was recently elected to service in the Egyptian Parliament, was on a diplomatic visit.

Although the State Department bars members of terrorist organizations from coming to the United States, it may grant exceptions for such visits. Still, the trip sparked concern among some lawmakers, including Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter T. King, R-N.Y., who suggested that Eldin may not have been properly vetted.