Seventh public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks
Upon the United States
Statement of Maura Harty to the National Commission
on Terrorist Attacks Upon The United States
January 26, 2004
Mr. Chairman, Members of the Commission:
I am very pleased to be here today with my colleagues from TTIC and TSC. The fact that we three are testifying here together highlights the unprecedented level of cooperation among U.S. government agencies aimed at improving border security through enhanced information sharing. I very much appreciate the opportunity to discuss the critical role of the visa process in defending our nation’s borders and the many ways we have strengthened that system in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001.
The Department of State, together with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other USG agencies, is determined to address potential vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks, while maintaining the values and the openness that have made us such a great nation. The Department of State’s visa work abroad constitutes a vital element in the “forward based defense” of the United States. We have no higher responsibility than the protection of our citizens and safeguarding our country’s borders through the visa process, and we are determined to carry out this responsibility in the best and most effective manner possible. My goal since I was confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs in November 2002 has been to examine our processes from top to bottom to make them as strong a shield against terrorists and criminals as we possibly can. To this end we have taken a number of steps to strengthen the integrity of the visa process so that we can continue to welcome to our shores the visitors, businesspeople, students, researchers and immigrants who enrich our society by their presence and who contribute to our economic well-being.
The Consular Officers of the Foreign Service who adjudicate visas at 211 embassies and consulates abroad are truly our first line of defense. They must have the best information available within the U.S. government on terrorist threats. I cannot over-emphasize this point: one of the most reliable ways to stop those who intend us harm is to identify them to our consular officers abroad. The Department of State, working with other agencies, has made significant improvements to our ability to share information – my colleagues here with me today represent institutions that symbolize this interagency commitment to information sharing. Thanks to this new level of collaboration, the data holdings in our consular lookout system now total almost 18 million records on people ineligible to receive visas, nearly triple what we had prior to September 11. We now have more than eight million records from the FBI alone in our system.
The majority of the data in the consular lookout system now derives from other agencies, especially those in the law enforcement and intelligence communities. Information sharing, of course, must be reciprocal. We now provide access to the 75 million visa records in our consular database to DHS officers at ports of entry so that they can view the electronic files we have of every visaed passenger entering the United States. This database permits examination of detailed information in near-real time on all visas issued, including the photographs of nonimmigrant visa applicants. We are also sharing our consular database with the National Targeting Center, a 24/7 operation of Customs and Border Protection in DHS.
We have also joined in the establishment of the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) that will integrate terrorist watchlists and serve as the centralized point of contact for everyone from the police officer on the beat here in the U.S. to the consular officer in the farthest reaches of the globe. Together with the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC), which will maintain the principal database on known and suspected terrorists in a highly classified form, we will rely on the TSC to ensure consular officers have access to the information they need to deny visas to those who would do us harm. We are proud that these institutions rest on a foundation that the Department of State laid in the form of TIPOFF, a pioneering system in the use of classified information for screening purposes. The TIPOFF database with its approximately 120,000 records, more than double the amount since September 11, is now housed at TTIC. TTIC and TSC together will eliminate the stovepiping of terrorist data and provide a more systematic approach to posting lookouts on potential and known terrorists.
NEW RELATIONSHIP WITH DHS
We have also entered into an historic partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and work closely with them on a number of initiatives to improve border security.
- Student Tracking - DHS and the Department of State recently collaborated on the implementation of the new international student tracking system known as SEVIS. All student visas are now verified and registered in the SEVIS database. For the first time, the U.S. Government receives on-line verification that an international student is maintaining status at the school for which his or her visa was issued. All institutions which host international students, including flight schools, have been re-examined and re-certified as a condition of participating in SEVIS. The consequences of noncompliance are substantial, that a school will no longer be able to accept international students. Over one million records from SEVIS have been downloaded to our Consular Consolidated Database where the information is available for the electronic verification, adjudication, and reporting of student and exchange visitor visas.
- Visa Revocations - We have strengthened procedures following revocation of a visa by ensuring timely notice of the revocation to DHS and the FBI and by creating a shared visa revocation lookout code between State and DHS lookout systems. We also started automated cross-checking of new derogatory information concerning terrorists or suspected terrorists (including TIPOFF entries) against records of previously issued visas in order to revoke existing valid visas in the hands of those who may be a threat.
- Biometrics - We are currently engaged with DHS in implementing a biometrics program to track the entry and exit of foreign visitors by using electronically scanned fingerprints and photographs. This new system, which begins with consular offices collecting electronically scanned fingerprints at consular sections abroad and continues with DHS’s US-VISIT program at ports of entry and departure, will create a coordinated and interlocking network of border security.
- MOU - Secretaries Powell and Ridge signed a Memorandum of Understanding on September 26, 2003, which sets the terms under which officers of the two Departments will work together in the visa adjudication process. We are already working closely with our new DHS partners in Saudi Arabia and are actively pursuing other areas where their expertise will help strengthen the visa process.
CONSULAR IMPROVEMENTS SINCE 9/11
But this is only part of the story. The Bureau of Consular Affairs has undertaken a systematic review of the visa process in the aftermath of September 11 to identify and eliminate vulnerabilities in the system. Our overriding goal has been to provide consular officers not just the best tools but the best training possible. Toward this end, we have made major changes in the consular training course. We added four security/Counter-terrorism sessions since 2001. Two of those classes deal specifically with Counter-terrorism information, one of which is run by CIA/CT staff. The other session is a presentation on the consular officer’s role in counter-terrorism, presented by the Secretary’s Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism. Consular training now includes a third new session run by Diplomatic Security on visa fraud and malfeasance, which includes a piece on how to protect against visa fraud. The fourth “add-on” session is a lecture on how consular officers should use section 212(a)(3)(B) - the terrorism provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Training - In order to bring expertise on interviewing and deception-detection to our students, we contracted with outside interviewing experts to develop training specifically designed to improve the interviewing skills of consular officers. We took training specialists to our Embassies in Cairo and Mexico to see live visa interviews and then brought them to the Foreign Service Institute to see and critique our existing interviewing training. As a result, we collaborated with the contractor to develop a stand-alone, two-day module on analytic interviewing, which was introduced in to the new curriculum in November 2003. In the longer and revised training curriculum, we believe that we are presenting important, useable information on interviewing and counter-terrorism to our students. Our goal is to provide consular officers with expertise and the best tools available as they begin their critical roles in protecting U.S. border security.
But training does not stop with the classroom – it is an on-going process. We have instructed consular chiefs abroad to develop follow-up training programs and briefings for new consular officers. We have also issued more than 45 new Standard Operating Procedures, the majority in visa processing, to ensure uniformity in procedure and to reinforce the importance of proper safeguards in visa adjudication. We have conveyed to consular chiefs and Chiefs of Missions the importance of consular officers in the country team process, especially the inter-agency terrorist information committee known as Visa Viper, to ensure that they are full players in connecting the dots by sharing information among agencies at posts abroad.
Staffing – I have spoken at length about systems. Let me say a few words about the people behind the systems. After more than a decade “doing more with less” when the increasing workload outstripped our resources, we are now beginning to hire to attrition and above thanks to Secretary Powell’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative. In FY 2004, the Department is establishing 93 new consular positions -- 13 domestic and 80 overseas. And in FY 2005, the Department is requesting 60 additional positions -- 15 domestic and 45 overseas. In addition to these, we are establishing 68 new positions overseas in FY-04 and requesting 63 in FY-05 as part of the Consular Associate replacement program. These additional positions will give us the ground troops necessary to staff our first line of defense.
I-94 Reval- In March 2002, we amended regulations to close a loophole and limit the ability of persons with expired visas to reenter the U.S. from contiguous territory (i.e. Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean). This change removed from the automatic revalidation provision those persons who apply for a new visa and are refused in Canada or Mexico and all nationals of countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism regardless of whether they apply for a visa.
Interview - We also established a new worldwide standard for visa interview policy. On August 1, 2003, new regulations were implemented which limit the waiver of personal appearance for nonimmigrant visa applicants to only a few categories of exceptions, such as diplomats, children, and the elderly. Interviewing visa applicants is a powerful tool that assists consular officers in making critical visa decisions. There is almost no substitute for a direct, face-to-face exchange between an applicant and a consular officer to help establish an applicant’s credibility. This personal evaluation can verify that the individual portrayed in the application is actually the intended visa recipient. This new standard will also support biometric enrollment via fingerprinting, as mandated by Congress.
Biometrics - In September 2003, we began deployment of our biometric program at posts abroad to collect electronically scanned fingerprints of all visa applicants. These fingerprints will be matched against the DHS fingerprint database known as IDENT. When visa travelers enter the United States, their identity will be verified through DHS’s new US-VISIT program. By the end of 2003, 50 posts were collecting fingerprints. All 211 visa-adjudicating posts will be on-line and collecting biometrics by the congressionally mandated deadline of October 26, 2004.
SAO - We added additional security clearance checks for counter-terrorism purposes for certain groups of applicants. These security clearances are subject to an inter-agency review process by the intelligence and law enforcement communities. We are also investing one million dollars to develop an improved security clearance process that will use our Consular Consolidated Database to improve the electronic sharing and exchange of security-related data among posts, the -Department and clearing agencies. This new project will enhance the efficiency of the security clearance process and allow for real-time exchange of data.
Referrals - After a thorough review, we revised the Embassy visa applicant referral system to make the referring officer more accountable. That officer must now certify that the visa applicant is personally known to him or her, the applicant’s travel supports U.S. national interests, and the applicant does not pose a threat to the United States. Use of this form was made mandatory worldwide. We also counsel new Ambassadors and Deputy Chiefs of Mission in their pre-assignment training of the importance of these internal controls.
Lincoln Visa - We also completed deployment of the Lincoln nonimmigrant visa foil, which contains major enhancements to prevent counterfeiting and forgery. This visa foil represents a new generation of technology that offers greater security to U.S. issued travel documents.
Passports - Just as we are committed to the most secure adjudication process and documentation to support the visa process, the same is true in terms of what I consider to be the world’s most valuable document--the U.S. passport. We recently completed the system-wide introduction of photodigitization technology to support passport printing. That effort has been so successful that we have, in turn, moved the production of passports issued abroad to our U.S. domestic production facilities so that we can take advantage of the significant security improvements embodied in the photodigitization process. But, we also have many other initiatives underway. The most important is the introduction of “contactless chips” in U.S. passports, electronic chips on which we will write the bearer’s biographic information and photograph. This initiative is consistent with U.S. legislation that requires our Visa Waiver Program participants to take such a step, but is not required. We are nonetheless pursuing the initiative because it supports U.S. national security. This new passport will further strengthen our ability to reliably link the authorized bearer of a passport and its user.
We are completely redesigning the U.S. passport and its security features. And, since the passport process is only as strong as the underlying adjudication process, we are strengthening our datasharing efforts with agencies in order to help confirm the identity of applicants. Finally, the Department has proposed implementing a travel document requirement for U.S. citizens traveling in certain portions of the Western Hemisphere where passports are not currently required and is engaged in discussions with DHS on the proposal. This potential change in policy would also facilitate travel by speeding clearance of the great majority of bona fide U.S. citizens through U.S. and foreign immigration controls at border crossing stations; thus allowing border officials to concentrate on high-risk cases.
Internal Controls - Good management requires effective internal controls. We mandated a special worldwide review of management controls in September 2002 and again in August 2003. This is now a required annual report from all consular sections. We also implemented a system of Consular Management Assistance Teams to visit posts to review management controls and procedures. Twenty-nine such visits were made in CY 2003 and we are planning for 30 more in this CY. Finally, we created a Vulnerability Assessment Unit in our Office of Fraud Prevention Programs staffed by personnel from Consular Affairs and Diplomatic Security. This unit will use our consular databases and other systems to detect anomalies in visa and passport processing, thus reducing consular vulnerability to system manipulation. This unit also participates in State Department training efforts to ensure consular employees are well informed about issues related to malfeasance.
We are by no means done. This systematic review is a continuing process. Looking ahead now, we are actively working on new initiatives to build on what we have already done. In 2004 we will introduce a new tamper-resistant and machine readable immigrant visa foil to include digitized photo and fingerprints; eliminate additional vulnerabilities in the visa system by requiring all seamen to obtain individual visas; begin review of “rules based process” as a tool for visa screening; expand our pilot programs on facial recognition technology to combat fraud; increase our consular databases capacity to handle additional data from new sources; complete worldwide deployment of biometric visa capability; and continue discussions with Canada, Mexico, and the international community to expand data sharing on terrorist and criminal suspects.
The Mission of the Bureau of Consular Affairs is to assist Americans abroad, facilitate legitimate travel and stop the travel of foreigners to the United States who are likely to engage in activities harmful to our country. The terrorist attacks of September 11 highlighted as never before the crucial role the Department plays in U.S. border security. I want to assure the Members of the Commission that the Department of State and the Bureau of Consular Affairs are determined to spare no effort to secure our borders against terrorist and criminal threats and to create consular processes in which the American people can place their confidence and trust.
Maura Harty became the Assistant Secretary of Consular Affairs on November 21, 2002. Immediately prior to assuming the position in Consular Affairs, she served as the Executive Secretary of the Department of State.
Ambassador Harty entered the Foreign Service in 1981, after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Following an initial assignment to the American Embassy in Mexico City, Ambassador Harty returned to Washington and immediately participated in the United States’ rescue mission to Grenada, by searching the Island for endangered American students and retirees. She later served as a Watch Officer in the State Department’s Operations Center and was promoted to Senior Watch Officer during that assignment. In 1987-1988, Harty was a Special Assistant to then Secretary of State George P. Shultz.
Harty returned overseas in 1988 as Chief of the non-immigrant visa section in Bogota, Colombia. Ambassador Harty subsequently served as Consul at the American Embassy in Madrid. During that time she also assisted in the opening of the American Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania.
In 1994, Harty served as the Managing Director of the Directorate of Overseas Citizens Services, where she created the office of Children’s Issues. The establishment of that office focused attention and resources for the first time on the tragic problem of international parental child abduction.
Harty was selected as a Deputy Executive Secretary of the Department in 1995 and subsequently served as Executive Assistant to Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Following that assignment, she became the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Paraguay where she and her Embassy team worked as strong advocates for democracy and the rule of law.