The mishandling of the would-be airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab’s visa is only the latest piece of evidence that the granting of visas should be taken away from the State Department. Doing so would improve our national security — and actually help the State Department itself.
The granting of visas has little to do with State’s main function, which is to manage relations with foreign governments. The department’s “mission statement” reads as follows:
Advance freedom for the benefit of the American people and the international community by helping to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly within the international system.
Needless to say, there’s not a word there about “keeping terrorists out of our country,” and that is no surprise. Granting visas is a function that most people at State relegate to the margins of their activities. State’s mandarins — foreign service officers or “FSOs” — look down at the consular officials who handle visas. This is considered a third-rate assignment, something young FSOs have to suffer through for a few years at the very start of their careers. It is less a training assignment than a form of hazing. They then escape into “real” State Department work — diplomatic activity, conducted in the regional bureaus of the Department and in our embassies abroad. Relieving State of the need to manage the visa process would remove from it a task for which it has no enthusiasm — and for which its top officials have no expertise.
For the granting of visas — especially today, when terrorism is such a complex threat — is far closer to being a law-enforcement function. The obvious place for this task is the Department of Homeland Security, which houses Customs and Immigration enforcement already and which sees protecting the country from terrorism as its central focus. A consular corps could be created at DHS, and would likely attract people who want to see the world — and help protect America from terror. It’s logical that former military and police officials would apply, perhaps retired after 20 years of service but with plenty of energy and experience. And whoever applied would know his or her job was not to smooth relations with foreign governments, not to avoid unpleasant refusals of visa requests, not to attend cocktail parties; instead it would be to help manage a huge system that affects America’s commercial and economic interests, and nowadays our national security as well. Moreover, within DHS, such officials wouldn’t be second-rate citizens; their functions would be understood as part of the core mission of the department. Compare the DHS mission statement to that from State above:
This Department of Homeland Security’s overriding and urgent mission is to lead the unified national effort to secure the country and preserve our freedoms. . . . [T]he Department was created to secure our country against those who seek to disrupt the American way of life. . . .
Such a move would also downsize the State Department usefully: Literally thousands of consular officials at hundreds of posts around the world could be removed from the department, and 21 domestic offices that issue passports to Americans could also be moved over to DHS. As it happens, visa processing is often not even done physically at U.S. embassies abroad, but at other locations able to handle the huge lines that appear in many capitals. Keeping visa functions, and those long lines, away from our embassies can actually help the physical security of our embassies as well.
There are very few good arguments as to why this change from State to DHS should not be made right now. It’s sometimes argued that those early years on the visa line help young FSOs to get their feet on the ground and see reality, before the years on the diplomatic circuit remove them to the stratosphere. It’s a poor reason to keep a law-enforcement function at State, and there are plenty of other ways to expose young diplomats to life on the ground. Of course, all those positions processing U.S. visa requests won’t be eliminated entirely, but by consolidation with the border, customs, and immigration functions already at DHS, one can at least hope for some greater efficiency and economies over time. And one can hope for greater security faster than that.
Moving visa functions to DHS is no panacea, obviously, but the case of the would-be airline bomber Abdul Mutallab is perhaps suggestive. His multiple-entry visa to the U.S. was not cancelled by State, not even after his own father alerted U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria of the danger he might present. His visa to enter the United Kingdom was cancelled, however, months ago. But not by the Foreign Office, Britain’s equivalent of the State Department. In the U.K., the Foreign Office does not handle visas; they are the responsibility of the U.K. Border Agency, established in 2008 and “responsible for securing the United Kingdom’s borders and controlling migration,” just like our DHS. Let’s learn the lesson. Members of Congress seeking to react to the Detroit near-calamity in a useful way should hold hearings right after New Year’s and get a move on. No more visas for State.
– Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as the deputy national-security adviser handling Middle Eastern affairs in the George W. Bush administration.