Consular Services Changed after 9/11; Entry Visas Draw Closer Scrutiny

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 29, 2004 | Go to article overview

Consular Services Changed after 9/11; Entry Visas Draw Closer Scrutiny


Byline: Nicholas Kralev, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

At first glance, David T. Donahue's experience on September 11, 2001, was not much different from that of most other Americans.

"I heard the first plane had already hit the World Trade Center, and then watched the second live on television, like everybody else," he recalled recently.

But although most Americans were at home or at work when the terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. Donahue was in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, where the plot that killed about 3,000 Americans most likely was hatched.

He had been dealing for days with the country's Taliban regime, which had provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network since 1996.

Mr. Donahue, the U.S. consul-general in Islamabad, the capital of neighboring Pakistan, was on a mission to rescue two U.S. citizens, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. The Christian relief workers, along with six Germans and Australians, had been detained five weeks earlier on proselytizing charges and faced possible death sentences.

"We had a beautiful morning," Mr. Donahue recalled. "We were out with a Taliban official, visiting the old German school where his son went. In the middle of the tour, we received a call that we had been granted permission to visit the girls, talk to them in depth and discuss legal representation for the first time."

Mr. Donahue was unable to secure the release of the women, who were freed only when the Taliban were overthrown in a U.S.-led war that November, but he continued to monitor their case from Islamabad.

"The war was going on, and I would call the Foreign Ministry as bombs rained down on the city. They would check on them and give us reports back," he said in an interview at the embassy in Manila, where he has been working since 2002.

As a Foreign Service officer with 18 years' experience, Mr. Donahue knew immediately after the September 11 attacks that the work of American diplomats overseas was bound to change. More than 21/2 years later, those changes have been most profound in his line of work - consular affairs.

Protecting the interests of Americans abroad, as Mr. Donahue did in Kabul, is only part of that work. Consular officers also are the people responsible for issuing U.S. entry visas to foreigners.

That function, which is performed at 211 missions around the world, has come under intense scrutiny in Washington since it was discovered that the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks had entered the United States on legally obtained visas.

"I think about this every day," said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. "Since September 11, we are always looking at all of the moving parts and pieces."

Even the harshest critics, who immediately after the attacks demanded that the State Department be stripped of visa-issuing responsibilities, now say the fault lay less with individual officers than with a system that lacked basic coordination with intelligence and law-enforcement agencies.

"There was nothing in our consolidated database that would have said, 'Don't let these individuals in the country because they are terrorists,'" Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the commission investigating the attacks last week.

'Worked to death'

Although the State Department blames other agencies for failing to pass along information on terrorists, the events of September 11 exposed some chronic problems that had existed for years in the consular service.

More than 100 consular officers interviewed at about 30 posts on five continents said budget constraints and personnel shortages forced brand-new officers still learning the ropes to interview more than 100 visa applicants a day, often basing decisions on conversations as brief as a couple of minutes.

"We had more than 2,100 people requesting visas every day, so we were upping the number of interviews we did from 700 to 1,000 to 1,200 to 1,400, and we were worked to death," a junior officer in Latin America said about his previous post in the same region. …

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