As ousted State Department official Mary Ryan cleans out her desk, her possible successor as Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs is already under fire. Parents of abducted American children held overseas have turned thumbs down on Maura Harty, Ryan’s former Principal Deputy believed to be the administration’s favorite to replace her.
Harty oversaw the Office of Children’s Issues (OCI) from 1994 to 1995 and between August 1999 and April 2001. These parents charge that she allowed “clientitis,” or deference to foreign leaders and laws, to trump OCI’s vigilant pursuit of the interests of U.S. citizens. If these moms and dads are right, Harty is unsuited to execute key, family-uniting, visa-granting duties.
Patricia Roush calls her treatment by OCI “indifference bordering on hostility.” The Sacramento-area resident says her daughters, Alia and Aisha (both U.S. citizens), were whisked to Saudi Arabia in January 1986 by their Saudi father, Khalid Gheshayan. Since then, Roush says, State’s Saudi desk rarely helped, but repeatedly called the Saudis “our clients.” She dismisses OCI as “merely another data collecting, do-nothing, play-dead-at-the-wheel section of the federal government.” Roush believes Harty “had many chances to make a difference during her watch at Children’s Issues but chose to disregard the cries of America’s children.” Roush’s now-adult daughters remain trapped in Saudi Arabia, after Gheshayan sold them into arranged marriages with Saudi men.
Roush and eleven other parents have told their mournful tales in letters to the White House. They consistently describe the office Harty supervised as unresponsive and even callous toward their concerns.
Margaret McClain says Abdulbaset Ahmed Mohammed Al-Omary — the non-custodial father of her daughter, Machael Heidi Al-Omary — kidnapped her to Saudi Arabia in August 1997. When she approached OCI, she says she heard she would get no help to bring her “son” home. OCI “didn’t even bother to find out the sex of my child before replying to my request for assistance,” McClain writes. In 1999, OCI claimed it could not locate Machael’s father in Saudi Arabia. McClain’s other daughter excavated his work number by calling directory assistance in Dhahran. Handed this gem, OCI at last contacted Mr. Al-Omary.
Maureen Dabbagh says the Syrian father of her daughter, Nadia, took her to Saudi Arabia in 1993. Though she has not seen her girl again, Dabbagh used the Freedom of Information Act to acquire her OCI files. She was shocked by “page after page of slanderous, insulting comments made about me and comments trivializing my case.” She says State personnel called her “a would-be-do-gooder” and brushed off her plight as “Not Without My Daughter” and “The Never Ending Story.”
At least Dabbagh learned something through FOIA. After “working through the maze of bureaucratic paralysis which makes up so much of the State Department,” as he puts it, Mark Wayson of Fairbanks, Alaska tried to use FOIA to regain custody of his daughter, Rosana Joy Sug Wayson. He says Rosana’s mother swiped her from Brazil to Germany on December 17, 1997. “My request for FOIA was never answered,” Wayson writes. “FOIA requests are little more than another stall tactic, used by the State Department while administrations change, and our abducted children become adults.”
Maura Harty did not return my calls seeking her comments. Asked about these and other parents’ frustrations with her performance, State Department spokesman Ed Dickens snapped: “I’m not going to respond to that.” Elsewhere at State, Harty’s defenders call her an experienced professional who would implement any plan Colin Powell might conceive to improve CA.
Perhaps, but CA’s visa application and child-kidnap/custody duties demand a wily, energetic newcomer willing to tread on toes — both foreign and domestic. Specifically, reforming State’s gatekeeping function is a matter of life and death. All 19 of the September 11 hijackers arrived here legally. Without even being interviewed by U.S. diplomats, three of them zipped through the now-defunct Visa Express program that Mary Ryan managed. President Bush should not promote Ryan’s former copilot to steer Consular Affairs. Instead, he should appoint a tough outsider who will repatriate kidnapped American children, sack those at our Embassy in Qatar who allegedly sold some 70 visas for up to $13,000 each and repel every visa applicant who dreams of slaughtering Americans.