Border Security: Strengthened Visa Process Would Benefit from	 
Additional Management Actions by State and DHS (13-SEP-05,	 
GAO-05-994T).							 
                                                                 
In adjudicating a visa application, Department of State (State)  
consular officers are on the front line of defense against those 
whose entry would likely be harmful to U.S. national interests.  
In October 2002, we identified shortcomings and made		 
recommendations on the role of national security in the visa	 
process. This testimony discusses our report issued today on	 
actions taken since our 2002 report to strengthen the visa	 
process, as well as areas that deserve additional management	 
actions. It also discusses our July 2005 report on the status of 
the assignment of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel
to U.S. consular posts overseas.				 
-------------------------Indexing Terms------------------------- 
REPORTNUM:   GAO-05-994T					        
    ACCNO:   A36597						        
  TITLE:     Border Security: Strengthened Visa Process Would Benefit 
from Additional Management Actions by State and DHS		 
     DATE:   09/13/2005 
  SUBJECT:   Border security					 
	     Counterterrorism					 
	     Homeland security					 
	     Terrorism						 
	     Visas						 
	     Interagency relations				 
	     Employee training					 
	     Labor force					 
	     Strategic planning 				 
	     Dept. of State Consular Lookout and		 
	     Support System					 
                                                                 
	     DHS Visa Security Program				 

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GAO-05-994T

Testimony

Before the Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and
International Relations, Committee on Government Reform, House of
Representatives

United States Government Accountability Office

GAO

For Release on Delivery Expected at 10:00 a.m. EDT

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

BORDER SECURITY

Strengthened Visa Process Would Benefit from Additional Management Actions
by State and DHS

Statement of Jess T. Ford, Director International Affairs and Trade

Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the
Visa Process Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the Visa Process
Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the
Visa Process Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the Visa Process
Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the
Visa Process Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the Visa Process
Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the Visa Process Changes to the
Visa Process

GAO-05-994T

September 13, 2005

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am pleased to be here to discuss our reports issued today and in July1
on the actions that the Departments of State (State) and Homeland Security
(DHS) have taken to strengthen the nonimmigrant visa2 process as an
antiterrorism tool. All 19 of the September 11, 2001, terrorist hijackers
were issued a visa, which is a U.S. travel document foreign citizens must
generally obtain before entering the country temporarily for business,
tourism, or other reasons. In deciding to approve or deny a visa
application, State's consular officers are on the front line of defense in
protecting the United States against potential terrorists and others whose
entry would likely be harmful to U.S. national interests. But consular
officers must balance this security responsibility against the need to
facilitate legitimate travel. In October 2002, we identified shortcomings
and made recommendations aimed at strengthening the role of national
security in the visa process, procedures for addressing heightened border
security concerns, staffing, and counterterrorism training of consular
officers.3 Similarly, staff of the National Commission on Terrorist
Attacks Upon the United States, or the 9-11 Commission, reported that
while there were efforts to enhance border security prior to September 11,
no agency of the U.S. government at that time thought of the visa process
as an antiterrorism tool.4 Indeed, the 9-11 Commission staff reported that
consular officers were not trained to screen for terrorists.

Today I will discuss the changes made since our 2002 report to strengthen
the visa process, as well as areas that deserve additional management
attention. First, I will focus on our report issued today on changes in
visa policy and guidance; consular resources, including staffing and
training; and the extent to which U.S. agencies share information with
visa adjudicators. Second, I will discuss our July 2005 report on the
placement of DHS Visa Security Officers (VSO) at U.S. embassies and
consulates overseas.

1See GAO, Border Secury: Actons Needed to Strengthen Management of
Deparment ofHomeland Security's Visa Securty Program, GAO-05-801
(Washington, D.C.: July 29, 2005), and GAO, Border Security: Strengthened
Visa Process Would Benefit From Improvementsin Staffing and Information
Sharing, GAO-05-859 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 13, 2005).

2The United States also grants visas to people who intend to immigrate to
the United States. In this testimony, the term "visa" refers to
nonimmigrant visas only.

3GAO, Border Security: Visa Process Should Be Strengthened as an
Antiterrorism Tool, GAO-03-132NI (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 21, 2002).

49-11 Commission, 911 and Terrorist Travel: Saff Report of the National
Commssion on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United Staes (Washington, D.C.;
Aug. 21, 2004).

In conducting this work, we reviewed relevant legislation and agency
documents, and interviewed State, DHS, and Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) officials in Washington, D.C., as well as visa chiefs and other
consular affairs staff from 25 posts overseas. We observed visa operations
and interviewed U.S. government officials at 8 U.S. consular posts in
seven countries-Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Spain, Saudi Arabia,
and the United Kingdom. Our work was conducted in accordance with
generally accepted government auditing standards. In addition, GAO has
conducted extensive reviews of different aspects of the visa process and
related areas (see appendix I for a list of GAO reports).

                                    Summary

State and DHS have taken many steps to strengthen the visa process as an
antiterrorism tool. Specifically, State has provided clear instructions to
consular officers on the importance of national security to the visa
process. At every post we visited, including those of special interest to
antiterrorism efforts, consular staff viewed security as their top
priority, while recognizing the importance of facilitating legitimate
travel. To further strengthen the visa process, State has increased hiring
of consular officers, targeted recruitment of foreign language proficient
officers, revamped consular training with a focus on counterterrorism, and
increased resources to combat visa fraud. Further, intelligence and law
enforcement agencies have shared more information for consular officers'
use in conducting name checks on visa applicants. Despite these
improvements, we found that further actions are needed to enhance the
process. Consular officers we interviewed said that guidance is needed on
interagency protocols regarding DHS staff's roles and responsibilities
overseas. Actions are also needed to ensure that State has sufficient
experienced staff with the necessary language skills at key consular
posts. While State has hired more consular officers, it continues to
experience shortages in supervisory staff. As of April 30, 2005, 26
percent of midlevel positions were either vacant or filled by entry-level
staff. Moreover, State has not prioritized the staffing of more
experienced officers to key posts. For example, we found that the visa
sections in critical posts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt were staffed with
first-tour, entry-level officers and no permanent midlevel visa chiefs to
provide direct supervision and oversight. Our report issued today also
calls for further improvements in training and fraud prevention, as well
as information sharing with the FBI.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 authorized the assignment of DHS
employees to U.S. embassies and consulates to provide expert advice and
training to consular officers regarding visa security, among other
things.5 In September 2003, DHS assigned VSOs to consular posts in Saudi
Arabia and plans to assign staff to other posts to strengthen the visa
process at these locations. VSOs assigned to Saudi Arabia review all visa
applications prior to final adjudication by consular officers as required
by the Homeland Security Act. These VSOs also assist consular officers
with interviews and fraud prevention. According to DHS, State's consular
officials, and the deputy chief of mission in Saudi Arabia, the VSOs in
Riyadh and Jeddah have strengthened visa security. However, no
comprehensive data exists to demonstrate the VSOs' impact. In addition,
the requirement to review all visa applications in Saudi Arabia limits the
VSOs' ability to provide additional training and other services to
consular officers, such as assisting with interviews. Furthermore, DHS
planned to expand the Visa Security Program6 to five locations in fiscal
year 2005 and intends further expansion in future years; however, chiefs
of mission at the posts chosen for expansion in fiscal year 2005 delayed
approvals needed for the expansion. Embassy and State officials attributed
the delays to various questions and concerns about the program's goals,
staffing requirements, and coordination plans. According to DHS officials,
the department provided sufficient responses throughout 2004 and 2005 to
answer the concerns. However, DHS has not developed a strategic plan for
visa security operations in Saudi Arabia or the future expansion posts
that defines mission priorities and long-term goals and identifies the
outcomes expected at each post.

In our report issued today and our July report, we have recommended
actions to further improve both the visa process and the management of the
Visa Security Program. In addition, we have recommended that Congress
consider requiring State and the FBI to report on the options for and
feasibility of providing visa adjudicators with more detailed information
from the FBI's criminal history records, and to allow DHS the flexibility
to determine which visa applications its personnel in Saudi Arabia will
review.

5P.L. 107-296.

6For the purpose of this statement, we refer to DHS's program that
oversees the implementation of the requirements in sect. 428 (e) and sect.
428 (i) of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 as the Visa Security Program.

In general, State and DHS agreed with the majority of our conclusions in
both reports. Both agencies indicated that they have begun taking steps to
implement our recommendations. However, State believed that it already had
a plan to address vulnerabilities in consular staffing and that
development of a comprehensive plan that we recommended was not necessary.
The Department of Justice did not comment on the matter for congressional
consideration regarding visa adjudicators' access to certain information
in the FBI's criminal history records; it provided additional information
about other efforts that the department is taking to enhance the sharing
of law enforcement and intelligence information in connection with visa
processing.

                                   Background

The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended, is the primary body
of law governing immigration and visa operations.7 The Homeland Security
Act of 2002 generally grants DHS exclusive authority to issue regulations
on, administer, and enforce the Immigration and Nationality Act and all
other immigration and nationality laws relating to the functions of U.S.
consular officers in connection with the granting or denial of visas.8 As
we reported in July 2005,9 the act also authorized the assignment of DHS
employees to U.S. embassies and consulates to provide expert advice and
training to consular officers regarding visa security, among other things.
In particular, the act mandated that VSOs on-site in Saudi Arabia review
all visa applications prior to final adjudication by consular officers.

A September 2003 Memorandum of Understanding between State and DHS further
outlines the responsibilities of each agency with respect to visa
issuance. State manages the visa process, as well as the consular corps
and its functions at 211 visa-issuing posts overseas. In addition, State
provides guidance, in consultation with DHS, to consular officers
regarding visa policies and procedures. DHS is responsible for
establishing visa policy, reviewing implementation of the policy, and
providing additional direction. This agreement also broadly defines the
DHS officers' responsibilities in reviewing visa applications at consular
posts overseas, indicating, among other things, that they will provide
expert advice to consular officers regarding specific security threats
relating to visa adjudication and will also provide training to consular
officers on terrorist threats and applicant fraud.

7P.L. 82-414, 8 U.S.C. S: 1101 et seq.

8State retains authority in certain circumstances as outlined in the act.
See P.L. 107-296.

9GAO-05-801.

The process for determining who will be issued or refused a visa contains
several steps, including documentation reviews, in-person interviews,
collection of biometrics (fingerprints), and cross-referencing of the
applicant's name against the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS)
10 (see fig. 1).

Figure 1: Visa Adjudication Process at a U.S. Embassy

10CLASS is a State Department name-check database that posts use to access
critical information for visa adjudication. The system contains records
provided by numerous agencies and includes information on persons with
visa refusals, immigration violations, and terrorism concerns.

In 2002, we recommended actions to strengthen the visa process as an
antiterrorism tool, including

           o  establishing a clear policy on the priority attached to
           addressing national security concerns through the visa process;
           o  creating more comprehensive, risk-based guidelines and
           standards on how consular officers should use the visa process to
           screen against potential terrorists;
           o  performing a fundamental reassessment of staffing and language
           skill requirements for visa operations; and
           o  revamping and expanding consular training courses to place more
           emphasis on detecting potential terrorists.

      Visa Process Strengthened, and Further Actions Would Support Ongoing
                                  Improvements

Since 2002, State, DHS, and other agencies have taken numerous steps to
strengthen the visa process as an antiterrorism tool and increase its
overall efficiency and effectiveness. In particular, the Assistant
Secretary in the Bureau of Consular Affairs has taken a leading role in
implementing changes to the visa process and promoting its use as a screen
against potential terrorists. However, additional actions could enhance
the visa process. State has increased and clarified visa policies and
guidance, but additional steps are needed to ensure these changes are
implemented. Additionally, State has increased resources to strengthen the
visa process, including hiring additional consular officers, targeting
recruitment, and expanding training efforts; however, staffing limitations
remain a concern, posts seek further training, and other gaps remain.
Lastly, while interagency information-sharing efforts have increased,
consular officers do not have direct access to detailed information from
the FBI's criminal records, which would help facilitate the approval of
legitimate travelers.

Visa Policies, Procedures, and Guidance Enhanced, but Additional Steps Needed to
Ensure They Are Implemented

We reported in October 2002 that consular officers held differing views on
balancing the need for national security and customer service in the visa
process. In addition, State had not issued comprehensive policy guidance
to posts regarding how consular officers should react to the heightened
border security concerns following the September 11 attacks. Over the past
three years, State has implemented several changes to address these
issues, and consular officials stated that the report and its
recommendations provided a framework for these changes. For example, in
February 2003, Consular Affairs issued guidance identifying national
security as the first priority of the visa process. Consular officers we
interviewed said the guidance was generally clear, and officers at all
eight posts we visited viewed security as the most critical element of the
visa process. In addition, Consular Affairs identified certain areas where
additional guidance was needed to streamline visa procedures. State has
issued more than 80 standard operating procedures, in consultation with
DHS, to inform consular officers on issues such as fingerprinting and
special clearance requirements.

Despite these improvements, some consular officers we interviewed stated
that it has been difficult to synthesize and consistently apply all of the
changes to the visa process. The guidance provided to consular officers in
the field is voluminous and can change rapidly, according to consular
officials. The Consular Affairs Bureau may notify its officers overseas of
policy changes through cables, postings on its internal Web site, and
informal communications. However, the bureau has not consistently updated
the consular and visa chapters of the Foreign Affairs Manual-State's
central resource for all regulations, policies, and guidance-to reflect
these changes. Throughout 2005, the bureau has updated several portions of
the manual, but, as of June 2005, some sections had not been updated since
October 2004. Consular officials stated that they are overhauling the
standard operating procedures to eliminate those that are obsolete and
incorporate current requirements into the manual. However, while the
Consular Affairs Bureau's internal Web site contains all of the standard
operating procedures, it also links to out-of-date sections in the manual.
As a result, there is no single, reliable source for current information.

Consular officers also indicated that additional guidance is needed on
certain interagency protocols. Specifically, 15 out of 25 visa chiefs we
interviewed reported that additional guidance would be helpful regarding
the interaction between the Bureau of Consular Affairs and DHS. For
example, DHS personnel stationed overseas work on a variety of immigration
and border security activities and serve in a regional capacity. However,
DHS has not provided guidance to consular officers regarding the roles and
geographic responsibilities for its personnel.

Resources for Visa Function Increased, but Staffing Shortages and Other Gaps
Remain a Concern

In 2002, we found that at some posts the demand for visas, combined with
increased workload per visa applicant, exceeded the available staff. As a
result, we recommended that State perform a fundamental reassessment of
staffing requirements for visa operations. In our report issued today, we
have noted that State has received funding to address staffing shortfalls,
but we continue to see the need for a reassessment of resource needs
worldwide. Through the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative and other
sources,11 State has increased its Foreign Service officer consular
positions by 364, from 1,037 in fiscal year 2002 to 1,401 in fiscal year
2005. Moreover, a senior human resource official anticipates that many
officers hired under the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative will begin to
reach promotion eligibility for midlevel positions within the next two
years. However, as we have previously reported in 2003,12 the overall
shortage of midlevel Foreign Service officers would remain until
approximately 2013. As of April 30, 2005, we found that 26 percent of
midlevel consular positions were either vacant or filled by an entry-level
officer (see fig. 2). In addition, almost three-quarters of the vacant
positions were at the FS-03 level-midlevel officers who generally
supervise entry-level staff-which consular officials attribute to low
hiring levels prior to the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative and the
necessary expansion of entry-level positions to accommodate increasing
workload requirements after September 11, 2001.

11In 2001, State launched the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative-a 3-year
effort to ensure global diplomatic readiness.

12GAO, Stae Department: Targes for Hiring Filling Vacancies Overseas Being
Met, but Gaps Reman in Hard-to-Learn Languages, GAO-04-139 (Washington,
D.C.: Nov. 19, 2003).

Figure 2: Authorized Foreign Service Officer Consular Positions and
Distribution of Staff by Grade, as of April 30, 2005

Note: Vacancy figures may not reflect recent promotions of officers to a
higher grade who were still serving in lower-grade positions as of April
30, 2005.

During our February 2005 visits to Riyadh, Jeddah, and Cairo, we observed
that the consular sections were staffed with entry-level officers on their
first assignment with no permanent, midlevel visa chief to provide
supervision. Although these posts had other mid- or senior-level consular
officers, their availability on visa issues was limited because of their
additional responsibilities. For example, the head of the visa section in
Jeddah was responsible for managing the entire section as well as services
for American citizens due to a midlevel vacancy in that position. At the
time of our visit, the Riyadh Embassy did not have a midlevel visa chief.
Similarly, in Cairo, there was no permanent midlevel supervisor between
the winter of 2004 and the summer of 2005, and Consular Affairs used five
temporary staff on a rotating basis during this period to serve in this
capacity. Entry-level officers that we spoke with stated that due to the
constant turnover, the temporary supervisors were unable to assist them
adequately. At the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, entry-level officers
expressed concern about the lack of a midlevel supervisor. Officers in
Jeddah stated that they relied on the guidance they received from the DHS
visa security officer assigned to the post. However, as of July 2005, visa
security officers are stationed only at two consular posts in Saudi
Arabia-not at any of the other 209 visa-issuing posts overseas.

If the Consular Affairs Bureau identifies a need for additional staff in
headquarters or overseas, it may request that the Human Resources Bureau
establish new positions.

In addition, posts can also describe their needs for additional positions
through their consular packages-a report submitted annually to the
Consular Affairs Bureau that details workload statistics and staffing
requirements, among other things. For example, in December 2004, during
the course of our work, the consular section in Riyadh reported to
Washington that there was an immediate need to create a midlevel visa
chief position at post, and State worked with human resource officials to
create this position, which, according to State officials, will be filled
by summer 2005.

However, the current assignment process does not guarantee that all
authorized positions will be filled, particularly at hardship posts.13
Historically, State has rarely directed its employees to serve in
locations for which they have not bid on a position, including hardship
posts or locations of strategic importance, due to concerns that such
staff may be more apt to have poor morale or be less productive. Further,
though Consular Affairs can prioritize positions that require immediate
staffing, according to a deputy assistant secretary for human resources,
it generally does not do so. For example, Consular Affairs could choose
not to advertise certain positions of lesser priority during an annual
assignment cycle. However, senior Consular Affairs officials acknowledged
that they rarely do this. According to these officials, Consular Affairs
does not have direct control over the filling of all consular positions
and can often face resistance from regional bureaus and chiefs of mission
overseas who do not want vacancies at their posts. Therefore, due to
State's decision to not force assignments, along with the limited amount
of midlevel officers available to apply for them,14 important positions
may remain vacant.

13State defines hardship posts as those locations where the U.S.
government provides differential pay incentives-an additional 5 percent to
25 percent of base salary depending on the severity or difficulty of the
conditions-to encourage employees to bid on assignments to these posts and
to compensate them for the hardships they encounter.

14The assignment process begins when Foreign Service employees who are
eligible to be transferred from their current assignment each year receive
a list of instructions and upcoming vacancies for which they may compete.
Staff then must submit a list of those positions for which they want to be
considered.

  Improvements Made in Recruitment, Training, and Fraud Prevention, and
  Additional Actions Would Support Ongoing Initiatives

In 2002, we found that not all consular officers were proficient enough in
their post's language to hold interviews with applicants. We also found
that training for new consular officers was focused on detecting intending
immigrants through the visa process, with little training given on
detecting possible terrorists. Today we are reporting that State has made
a number of improvements in its recruitment of language proficient Foreign
Service officers, expanded and revamped consular training, and increased
the attention paid to fraud prevention. However, we found that additional
actions would support ongoing improvements. For example,

           o  State has created programs to better target its recruitment of
           Foreign Service officers who speak critical languages. For
           example, in March 2004, State created the "Critical Needs Language
           Program," which increases the opportunities for appointment to the
           Foreign Service for new hires proficient in Arabic, Chinese,
           Indic, Korean, Russian, or Turkic, and who have passed the Foreign
           Service Exam. From March 2004 through May 2005, 172 of the 564
           Foreign Service officers hired were proficient in one of these
           languages. Despite these improvements, additional actions are
           needed to fill continuing language proficiency shortfalls. As of
           April 30, 2005, State reported that about 14 percent of
           consular-coned15 Foreign Service officers in language designated
           positions did not meet language requirements for their position.
           o  State has revamped and expanded consular training to enhance
           visa security. For example, in October 2003, the Basic Consular
           Course was extended from 26 days to 31 days, and classes were
           added in analytical interviewing and fraud prevention. In
           addition, in March 2002, State created a new course in advanced
           name-checking. However, additional training could further assist
           consular officers. All of the posts we contacted reported that
           additional training on terrorist travel trends would be helpful,
           with 16 posts responding that such training would be extremely
           helpful. Some posts also reported that additional briefings on
           counterterrorism techniques specific to post and fraud prevention
           would be helpful.
           o  State has taken several steps to increase its focus on
           preventing and detecting fraud in the visa process. For example,
           by 2004, State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security had deployed 25
           visa fraud investigators to U.S. embassies and consulates. In
           addition, State's Office of Fraud Prevention Programs has
           developed several ways for consular officers in the field to learn
           about fraud prevention, including developing an Internet-based
           "E-room," with more than 500 members, which serves as a discussion
           group for consular officers, as well as a place to post cables and
           lessons learned from prior fraud cases. However, until recently,
           the department has not used a systematic process to identify
           consular posts with the highest degree of visa fraud. According to
           State officials, fraud rankings for consular posts have not been
           based on an objective analysis using standardized criteria, but
           have been self-reported by each post. As a result, previous
           resources for fraud prevention, including the 25 visa fraud
           investigators assigned in 2004, may not have been allocated to
           posts with the highest need. We also plan to report later this
           year on the internal controls that are in place to mitigate the
           risks of visa malfeasance-the provision of a visa in exchange for
           money or something else of value-and intend to make several
           recommendations to help ensure adherence to these controls.

15State requires that a generalist applicant to the Foreign Service select
a "cone," which is a functional area of specialization, when applying to
take the written examination. For generalists, Foreign Service
specializations are management, consular, economic, political, and public
diplomacy.

Number of Intelligence and Law Enforcement Records in CLASS Increased, but
Additional Information Would Help Facilitate Legitimate Travel

The September 11 attacks highlighted the need for comprehensive
information sharing. In January 2005, GAO identified effective information
sharing to secure the homeland as a high-risk area of the U.S. government
due to the formidable challenges the federal government still faces in
this area.16 With cooperation from other federal agencies, State has
increased the amount of information available to consular officers in
CLASS. Name-check records from the intelligence community have increased
fivefold from 48,000 in September 2001 to approximately 260,000 in June
2005, according to consular officials. Moreover, consular officials told
us that, as of fall 2004, CLASS contained approximately 8 million records
from the FBI. In addition, State has developed more efficient methods of
acquiring certain data from law enforcement databases. For example, State
established a direct computer link with the FBI to send descriptive
information from the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) to
CLASS on a daily basis.

While the additional records in CLASS have helped consular officers detect
those who might seek to harm the United States, many consular officers we
interviewed stated that the increased volume of records and lack of access
to other detailed information can lead to visa-processing delays. In
particular, consular officers do not have direct access to detailed
information in the FBI's criminal history records. Section 403 of the USA
PATRIOT Act of 200117 directs the Attorney General and the FBI to provide
State with access to extracts of certain files18 containing descriptive
information for the purpose of determining whether a visa applicant has a
criminal history record contained in the NCIC Interstate Identification
Index (or Index). The USA PATRIOT Act also states that access to an
extract does not entitle consular officers to obtain the full contents of
the corresponding records. In accordance with this mandate, FBI officials
stated that the bureau provides to CLASS extracts that contain all
available biographical information, such as the date of birth and height
of the person with the criminal record.19 As a result, when conducting a
CLASS name check, consular officers told us they may not be able to
determine whether an FBI file matches an applicant because the extracts
lack sufficient biographical information. Moreover, in accordance with
section 403, the extracts do not contain details such as charges or
dispositions of the cases, which are necessary to determine if the
applicant might be ineligible for a visa.20 For example, the information
in CLASS does not distinguish between a conviction for a crime such as
kidnapping, or an acquittal on charges of driving while intoxicated.

16GAO, High-Risk Series: An Update, GAO-05-207 (Washington, D.C.: January
2005).

Consular officers, therefore, must fingerprint applicants who have a
potential match in the Index for positive identification in FBI records to
then ascertain whether the information contained in the criminal record
would make the applicant ineligible for a visa.21 In fiscal year 2004, of
the

17P.L. 107-56.

18The files include the NCIC's Interstate Identification Index, which is
the FBI's database of criminal history records, Wanted Persons Files, and
any other files maintained by NCIC that may be mutually agreed upon by the
Attorney General and the agency receiving access.

19According to FBI officials, examples of the information provided to
CLASS, when available, include the FBI record number, name and alias, date
of birth, place of birth, citizenship, sex, race, eye color, hair color,
height, or weight.

20To render an alien ineligible under INA 212(a)(2)(A)(i)(I), the
conviction must be for a statutory offense that involves moral turpitude,
which includes many serious crimes, such as kidnapping and murder, but
does not include other crimes that may be reflected in the NCIC database.

21This requirement is also consistent with the National Crime Prevention
and Privacy Compact Act of 1998 (42 U.S.C. 14611 et seq.) (or Compact
Act), which organizes an electronic information-sharing system among the
federal government and states to exchange criminal history records, such
as those contained in the Index, for noncriminal justice purposes. The
Compact Act requires that consular officers, as noncriminal justice
personnel, first submit the visa applicant's fingerprints, or other
approved form of identification, for positive identification before the
record can be released.

To facilitate more efficient fingerprint processing, State and the FBI are
implementing an electronic fingerprint system whereby consular officers
will scan the applicants' fingerprints at post and submit them directly
into the FBI's database. FBI and State officials told us that posts would
be notified if the record in question matched the applicant within 24
hours. However, thousands of visa applicants could still face lengthier
wait times and additional fingerprinting fees that they would otherwise
not have incurred because consular officers lack enough information at the
time of the interview to determine if the records in CLASS match the
applicant.

The FBI and State have discussed several options to help ensure that
consular officers can facilitate legitimate travel; however, each would
require legislative changes and would entail associated trade-offs. These
options include the following:

           o  Consular officials told us that access to additional
           information in a criminal history file, such as the charge and
           disposition of a case, would allow their officers to determine
           which crimes are serious enough to require a positive fingerprint
           match prior to adjudication. However, FBI officials noted that
           there are some technical limitations on extracting specific pieces
           of data from the criminal history records.
           o  To avoid some of the technical limitations associated with the
           Index, FBI officials stated that it would be easier to provide
           visa adjudicators access to the full criminal history records.
           However, these officials told us that assurances would need to be
           in place to prevent misuse of the information, given its sensitive
           nature. Indeed, State and the FBI have already negotiated a
           Memorandum of Understanding aimed at protecting the information
           passed from NCIC to CLASS. However, consular officials indicated
           that their officers may need access only to the criminal charge
           and disposition of the case to adjudicate a visa case more
           efficiently.

Recommendations

In our report issued today, we are recommending, among other things, that
State and DHS, in consultation with appropriate agencies, clarify certain
visa policies and procedures and facilitate their implementation, and
ensure that consular sections have the necessary tools to enhance national
security and promote legitimate travel, including effective human
resources and training. In particular, we recommend that State develop a
comprehensive plan to address vulnerabilities in consular staffing
worldwide, including an analysis of staffing requirements and shortages,
foreign language proficiency requirements, and fraud prevention needs,
among other things-the plan should systematically determine priority
positions that must be filled worldwide based on the relative strategic
importance of posts and positions and realistic assumptions of available
staff resources. We also suggest that Congress consider requiring State
and the FBI to develop and report on a plan to provide visa adjudicators
with more efficient access to certain information in the FBI's criminal
history records to help facilitate the approval of legitimate travelers.

In commenting on a draft of our report, State noted that it is a fair and
balanced evaluation of the improvements made to the visa process. State
agreed with most of our conclusions, and indicated that it is taking
action to implement the majority of our recommendations. However, State
disagreed with our recommendation that it prepare a comprehensive plan to
address vulnerabilities in consular staffing. State argued that it already
had such a plan. Based on our analysis, we continue to believe it is
incumbent on the department to conduct a worldwide analysis to identify
high-priority posts and positions, such as supervisory consular positions
in posts with high-risk applicant pools or those with high workloads and
long wait times for applicant interviews. As we note in our report, at the
time of our work, the midlevel visa chief positions in Riyadh and Jeddah,
Saudi Arabia, and Cairo, Egypt, were not filled with permanent midlevel
officers. This was a serious deficiency given that the visa sections were
staffed with officers on their first tour. Although State noted that it
anticipated addressing this shortage of midlevel consular officers before
2013, it did not indicate when that gap would be filled. Moreover, State's
bidding and assignment process does not guarantee that the positions of
highest priority will always be filled with qualified officers. Therefore,
a further assessment is needed to ensure that State has the right people
in the right posts with the necessary skill levels.

     Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of DHS's Visa Security Program

In September 2003, DHS assigned Visa Security Officers (VSO) to consular
posts in Saudi Arabia and plans to assign staff to other posts to
strengthen the visa process at these locations. As we addressed in our
July 2005 report, according to State Department consular officers, the
deputy chief of mission, and DHS officials, VSOs in Saudi Arabia enhance
the security of the visa adjudication process at these consular posts,
though several issues raise concerns about the VSOs' role and impact. VSOs
in Saudi Arabia provide an additional law enforcement capability to the
visa adjudication process and have access to and experience using
important law enforcement information not readily available to consular
officers. Moreover, VSOs' border security and immigration experience can
assist consular officers during the visa process. The consular sections in
Riyadh and Jeddah have incorporated the VSOs' review of all visa
applications into the adjudication process in Saudi Arabia. In addition to
reviewing applications, the VSOs may conduct secondary interviews with
some visa applicants based either on findings from their application
reviews or a consular officer's request. Despite the VSOs' positive effect
on visa operations, however, several concerns exist about their role and
overall impact.

           o  The requirement that VSOs review all visa applications in Saudi
           Arabia limits the amount of time they can spend on training and
           other valuable services. We observed that VSOs in Riyadh and
           Jeddah must spend a significant amount of time reviewing all visa
           applications, including those of low-risk applicants or
           individuals who do not pose a threat to national security, as well
           as those that have preliminarily been refused by consular
           officers. A Visa Security Program official noted that this mandate
           is only for visa security operations in Saudi Arabia and not other
           posts to which DHS plans to expand the program. VSOs, DHS and
           State officials, and the deputy chief of mission all agreed that
           the mandate to review all applications was forcing the VSOs to
           spend time on lower priority tasks, limiting their ability to
           perform other important activities, such as providing training or
           conducting additional secondary interviews of applicants.
           o  DHS has not maintained measurable data to fully demonstrate the
           impact of VSOs on the visa process. The VSOs that were stationed
           in Riyadh during our visit estimated that, based on their review
           of visa applications, they had recommended that visas be refused
           after the preliminary decision to issue a visa by consular
           officers in about 15 cases between October 2004 and February 2005.
           In addition, the DHS officials in Saudi Arabia and in Washington,
           D.C., were able to provide anecdotal examples of assistance
           provided to the consular officers. However, DHS has not developed
           a system to fully track the results of visa security activities in
           Saudi Arabia. For example, DHS could not provide data to
           demonstrate the number of cases for which they have recommended
           refusal.

DHS's Planned Expansion of Security Program Delayed

DHS plans to expand the Visa Security Program to five additional posts in
fiscal year 2005; however, the assignments of VSOs were delayed at four of
the five selected expansion posts. DHS attributed the delay to resistance
by State, as well as funding problems; State and chiefs of mission
attributed the delays to various outstanding questions about the program.
Following DHS's initial request in June 2004 to assign 21 VSOs to five
expansion posts, embassy officials raised questions and concerns,
including regarding the criteria used by DHS to select expansion posts,
the reasoning for the number of VSOs requested for the posts, and DHS's
plans to coordinate with existing law enforcement and border security
staff and programs at post. In 2004 and 2005, DHS provided responses,
through State's Bureau of Consular Affairs, to the questions raised by the
chiefs of mission at four of the expansion posts. According to DHS, the
responses were sufficient to answer the concerns. We reviewed DHS's
responses to the posts, and identified a number of issues that had not
been fully addressed, such as what criteria DHS would use to demonstrate
the effectiveness of its officers. Nonetheless, the chiefs of mission at
three posts approved DHS's National Security Decision Directive 3822
requests in March and June 2005, while, as of June 2005, one post had
still not approved the request.

Although DHS plans to expand the Visa Security Program in fiscal year 2005
and beyond, it does not a have a strategic plan that defines mission
priorities and long-term goals and identifies the outcomes expected at
each post. We have identified the development of a strategic plan as an
essential component of measuring progress and holding agencies
accountable.23 The development of an overall strategic plan for the Visa
Security Program prior to the expansion of the program may have addressed
the questions initially raised by State and embassy officials that led to
the delay of the assignment of VSOs. Moreover, a strategic plan would
provide a framework for DHS to address broader questions regarding the
selection criteria for expansion, the roles and responsibilities of VSOs,
and the cost of establishing the program at posts. Officials from DHS and
State, as well as consular officials we contacted overseas, all agreed
that the development of such a plan would be useful to guide visa security
operations in Saudi Arabia and other posts. It would also be useful to
inform the Congress, as well as State and other agencies who participate
in the visa process at consular posts overseas.

Recommendations

In our July 2005 report, we recommended that DHS develop a strategic plan
to guide the operations of the Visa Security Program in Saudi Arabia and
the program's expansion to other embassies and consulates. This plan
should define mission priorities and long-term goals and identify expected
outcomes. In addition, the strategic plan and supporting documents should
include the criteria used to select the locations for expansion,
justification for the number of VSOs at each post, costs associated with
assigning VSOs overseas, and their roles and responsibilities in relation
to other agencies at post. In addition, we recommended that DHS develop
and maintain comprehensive performance data that track the results and
demonstrate impact of VSO activities. We also proposed that Congress
consider amending current legislation, which requires the review of all
visa applications in Saudi Arabia, to allow DHS the flexibility to
determine which applications VSOs will review prior to final adjudication
by consular officers. This would allow VSOs to focus on the applications
of those who may pose a risk to national security, providing them time to
perform other tasks that could benefit consular officers.

22The National Security Decision Directive-38 process requires non-State
agencies to seek approval of chiefs of missions on any proposed changes in
the size, composition, or mandate of their staff.

23See GAO, Executive Guide: Effectively Implementing the Government
Performance and Results Act, GAO/GGD-96-118 (Washington, D.C.: June 1996).

In commenting on our report, DHS stated that it was taking actions to
implement performance measurements and a strategic plan for the Visa
Security Program, as described in our recommendations. DHS indicated that
it is expanding the tracking and measurement of performance data to better
reflect program results, and is developing a strategic plan that will
integrate the key elements described in our recommendation. Regarding the
matter for congressional consideration to provide DHS with the flexibility
to determine the review of visa applications in Saudi Arabia, DHS noted
that a legislative change should maintain the department's authority and
discretion in determining the scope of the VSOs' review. DHS agreed that
it needed to expand some of the VSOs' activities in Saudi Arabia, such as
providing additional training, which we found were not being provided
because of the volume of work that resulted from fulfilling the
legislative requirement.

                                  Conclusions

The visa process presents a balance between facilitating legitimate travel
and identifying those who might harm the United States. State, in
coordination with other agencies, has made substantial improvements to the
visa process to strengthen it as a national security tool. DHS has also
taken steps to assign personnel to consular posts to provide an additional
layer of security to the visa process in these locations. However, we
identified areas where additional management actions are needed by State
and DHS to further improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the visa
process.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I will be happy to
answer any questions you or Members of the Subcommittee may have.

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Highlights of GAO-05-994T, a testimony before the Subcommittee on National
Security, Emerging Threats, and International Relations, Committee on
Government Reform, House of Representatives

September 13, 2005

BORDER SECURITY

Strengthened Visa Process Would Benefit from Additional Management Actions
by State and DHS

In adjudicating a visa application, Department of State (State) consular
officers are on the front line of defense against those whose entry would
likely be harmful to U.S. national interests. In October 2002, we
identified shortcomings and made recommendations on the role of national
security in the visa process. This testimony discusses our report issued
today on actions taken since our 2002 report to strengthen the visa
process, as well as areas that deserve additional management actions. It
also discusses our July 2005 report on the status of the assignment of
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel to U.S. consular posts
overseas.

What GAO Recommends

In our report issued today and our July report, we recommended further
improvements to the visa process and the management of DHS's Visa Security
Program. In addition, we recommended that Congress consider requiring
State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to report on the
options for and feasibility of providing visa adjudicators with more
detailed information from the FBI's criminal history records, and to allow
DHS personnel in Saudi Arabia the flexibility to determine the extent of
their application reviews.

State and DHS agreed with most of our conclusions. Both agencies indicated
that they were taking

StateandDHS have taken many steps to strengthen the visa process as an
antiterrorism tool. Consular officers are receiving clear guidance on the
importance of addressing national security concerns through the visa
process, and State has established clear procedures on visa operations
worldwide. State has also increased its hiring of consular officers and
language proficient Foreign Service officers, and has enhanced training
and fraud prevention efforts. Further, consular officers have access to
more information from intelligence and law enforcement agencies. However,
some areas require additional attention. For example, officers we spoke
with said that guidance is needed on DHS staff's roles and
responsibilities overseas. In addition, while State has hired more
consular officers, it continues to experience shortages in supervisory
staff. As of April 30, 2005, 26 percent of midlevel positions were either
vacant or filled by entry-level staff. During our February 2005 visits to
three consular posts in Saudi Arabia and Egypt-all of which are of
interest to U.S. antiterrorism efforts-the visa sections were staffed with
first-tour officers and no permanent midlevel visa chiefs to provide
direct oversight. Further improvements are also needed in training and
fraud prevention, as well as information sharing with the FBI.

In September 2003, DHS assigned visa security personnel to consular posts
in Saudi Arabia. According to DHS, State's consular officials, and the
deputy chief of mission in Saudi Arabia, the DHS officers in Saudi Arabia
strengthen visa security. However, DHS does not maintain comprehensive
data on their activities and thus is unable to fully demonstrate the
program's impact. Further, DHS has not developed a strategic plan for visa
security operations in Saudi Arabia or for the planned future expansion of
the program.

Improvements and Remaining Challenges to the Visa Process

           Issue             Improvements                Issues requiring     
                                                         attention            
Policy            Clarified policies on       Guidance needed on DHS roles 
                     national security concerns  overseas, and Foreign        
                                                 Affairs Manual should be     
                                                 updated                      
Staffing          Increased hiring and        Shortages of midlevel and    
                     focused recruitment         language proficient officers 
                                                 and unreliable data on wait  
                                                 times for applicant          
                                                 interviews                   
Training          Expanded consular training  Courses needed on terrorism  
                     with an emphasis on         travel trends and fraud      
                     counterterrorism            prevention, among others     
Fraud Prevention  Increased fraud awareness   Standard criteria needed to  
                                                 identify high-fraud posts    
Information       More information available  Additional information from  
sharing           from other agencies for     FBI criminal history files   
                     name checks                 would facilitate visa        
                                                 processing                   
DHS Visa Security Stationing of officers in   Comprehensive data and       
Program           Saudi Arabia with plans for strategic plan needed        
                     expansion                   

Source: GAO.
*** End of document. ***