Favoritism to the Saudis: Visas

(A non-Conventional report from John in Portland)


It takes a Kremlinologist’s skills to decode the 9/11 Commission’s bipartisan, exquisitely tactful report.  Take these two sentences, for example: 


That same day [June 22], the State Department notified all embassies of the terrorist threat and updated its worldwide public warning. In June, the State Department initiated the Visa Express program in Saudi Arabia as a security measure, in order to keep long lines of foreigners away from vulnerable embassy spaces. The program permitted visa applications to be made through travel agencies, instead of  directly at the embassy or consulate.
(VIII, p. 257) 

That looks pretty good, doesn’t it? Protecting the embassy — good idea! 


What they don’t tell you here — though that information can be found elsewhere in the report — is that that the convenient Saudi visas made the terrorists’ job much easier.  And in this case, it isn’t bipartisanship that’s the problem, since most of the terrorists entered the U.S. during the Clinton administration. Apparently the Commission decided that the only objective, neutral course would be never to blame anybody at all, as if they were running a daycare center.   The 9/11 report is like a series of jokes with all the punchlines removed.

Travel issues thus played a part in al Qaeda’s operational planning from the very start. During the spring and summer of 1999, KSM realized that Khallad and Abu Bara, both of whom were Yemenis,would not be able to obtain U.S. visas as easily as Saudi operatives like Mihdhar and Hazmi……Yet because individuals with Saudi passports could travel much more easily than Yemeni, particularly to the United States, there were fewer martyrdom opportunities for Yemenis. (V,  p. 156)

Hazmi and Mihdhar were ill-prepared for a mission in the United States. Their only qualifications for this plot were their devotion to Usama Bin Ladin, their veteran service, and their ability to get valid U.S. visas. (VII, p. 215)

Jarrah was supposed to be joined at FFTC by Ramzi Binalshibh, who even sent the school a deposit. But Binalshibh could not obtain a U.S. visa. His first applications in May and June 2000 were denied because he lacked established ties in Germany ensuring his return from a trip to the United States. In eptember, he went home to Yemen to apply for a visa from there, but was denied on grounds that he also lacked sufficient ties to Yemen. In October, he tried one last time, in Berlin, applying for a student visa to attend “aviation language school,” but the prior denials were noted and this application was denied as well, as incomplete. (VII, p. 225)

The majority of the Saudi muscle hijackers obtained U.S. visas in Jeddah or Riyadh between September and November of 2000. (VII, p. 235) 

The problems with the terrorists’ applications weren’t trivial, such as punctuation or spelling. Omitted information included home addresses, means of financial support and travel plans while within the United States. Only three forms listed a “Name and Address of Present Employer or School,” and only one of the 15 applicants listed an actual destination address in the United States. The rest of the hijackers put down vague locations such as “California,” “New York” and “Hotel.” One simply wrote “No.” Only two were given oral interviews, which are common for applicants from poorer or less stable countries or those whose written applications require clarification. (Sen John Kyl)

Getting an American visa in Saudi Arabia had already been easy, partly because of corruption:

A single Foreign Service Officer in the Jeddah consulate issued 10 of the visas to the Saudi hijackers. Yet GAO investigators told House staffers that no one from State ever interviewed that officer after 9/11 to learn what might have gone wrong. We’ve also had a scandal about foreign nationals working in the U.S. Embassy in Qatar, who sold at least 71 visas, including three to people with al Qaeda connections. (Wall Street Journal) 

But the Visa Express program made getting a visa even easier. It essentially allowed Saudis to pick up their visas at the travel agency along with their plane ticket, without any control whatsoever. The general rule under both Clinton and Bush was to give the Saudis everything they wanted, mostly for business reasons: “Melendez-Perez said that leading up to Sept. 11, customs officials were discouraged by their superiors from hassling Saudi travelers, seen as big spenders who made frequent visits to theme parks in the Orlando area. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.” (LA Times, Jan. 27, 2004) And according to the WSJ piece, it wasn’t just politics: the professionals within the State Department were a big part of the problem. (Ray Mabus, the only American diplomat who stood up to the Saudis on visa questions, was a Clinton political appointee whose policies were reversed by the professionals once he left office — the issue was American women married to Saudis who were unable to leave Saudi Arabia because they could not get exit visas.)


All the above was before the 9/11 attack.  So what did the Bush administration do after 9/11?

They were slow to do anything at all. According to the WSJ, the Visa Express program was still in effect in June, 2004, nine months after the attack, and it took over a year to add Saudi Arabia to the list of nations to which “Special Registration” visa rules appled. nefore 9/11 this  list included Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria. (North Korea and Cuba were on a separate list of countries to and from which travel was entirely forbidden.)  The Special Registration rules required the fingerprinting, photographing, and interviewing of applicants, and established special ways of tracking individuals from the countries listed who were travelling on student or tourist visas. 

On November 22, 2002 — over a year after the 9/11 attacks — were thirteen countries added to the original five on the Special Registration list:  Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. 

But unbelievably, Saudi Arabia, the place of origin of most of the attackers,  was not listed then! Nor was Pakistan, which was heavily implicated with the Taliban. Only on December 16, 2002 were these two countries finally added — along with Armenia. (There’s a little twist here. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had, in fact, already been secretly added to the list on September 5, 2002. Presumably this original secrecy was to save these two nations from public embarassment, whereas the later public announcement was because of U.S. public outcry.  Conjecturing further, perhaps Armenia was listed at the same time for the same reason that North Korea was added to the Axis of Evil — in order to make it slightly less obvious what was actually happening. In any case, Armenia was removed from the list two days later.)

This is a genuinely bipartisan issue. How often do you see Rep. Dan Burton Henry Waxman working together? (And how often do you see me citing the WSJ editorial page?)  It seems clear enough that, if the Saudis had been treated like Yemenis instead of like Canadians, Osama bin Laden’s job would have been much more difficult.   And while the Bush administration was indeed unduly soft on the Saudis, the Clinton administration and the State Department pros were almost as bad. 


And some of this is in the 9/11 report, sort of.  If you read like a Kremlinologist.


More on the Visa Express program: USN&WR

9/11 Commission Report 

(Substantial editing, revision, and expansion until 3:40 PDT.)