U.S. visa-revocation procedures broke down in a welter of interagency uncertainty in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a failure that current and former officials say allowed the Nigerian Islamist known to U.S. intelligence to board an airliner with a homemade bomb on Christmas Day.
However, the visa shortcomings were not the main focus of President Obama's recent comments on the security and intelligence failures related to the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.
"The system isn't broken, but what failed fundamentally in this case was the lack of focus on the potential threat threads tied to attack-planning directed at the United States," said Juan Zarate, who was a counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush. He is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"That's not a technological problem — this was a failure of forcing the existing system to concentrate on the potential reality of that threat," he said.
While some critics blame the State Department, which has full authority to cancel visas without permission from other agencies, others say the intelligence community should have recommended revocation based on information it had — but the State Department did not.
John R. Bolton, who in the Bush administration was undersecretary of state for international security and later ambassador to the United Nations, said the "allocation of responsibilities on visas between [the Departments of] State, Homeland Security and [the National Counterterrorism Center] has not worked out, although different people blame different agencies."
Mr. Obama conceded that an interagency problem exists when he said Thursday that he had directed "our embassies and consulates to include current visa information in their warnings of individuals with terrorist or suspected terrorist ties."
The reason for the president's instructions was the failure of the embassy in Nigeria, where Mr. Abdulmutallab's father reported his links to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in November, to check whether he had a valid U.S. visa, and to include that information in the message it sent to Washington, officials said.
"We are looking at better ways to share information, and we are asking other members of the [national security] community how we can do things better," said Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management who oversees the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Even though Mr. Abdulmutallab's latest visa was issued by the embassy in London, where he studied in 2008, all U.S. missions around the world have access to the same database. In addition, he had a visa issued in Nigeria in 2006, said Mr. Kennedy, a career diplomat who was appointed to his current position by Mr. Bush's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
When the State Department sent its initial message about the meeting with Mr. Abdulmutallab's father to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), it did not include visa information, either. Mr. Kennedy said Mr. Abdulmutallab's last name was misspelled in that message, but it was not clear whether a visa check on him was performed at all.
The misspelling — omitting "d" in Abdulmutallab — was discovered within a few days, and a new message was sent to NCTC, which finally mentioned the valid visa, Mr. Kennedy said. The NCTC determined that "the information was insufficient to make a judgment" about revoking the visa, which is why the State Department did nothing, he said.
Mr. Obama said there was enough information, but the dots were not connected.
"The U.S. government had the information — scattered throughout the system — to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack," he said. "Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had."
At the time Mr. Abdulmutallab applied for his visas, he was subjected to the strict rules and requirements implemented after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but there was no information linking him to terrorist groups, so his applications were approved, officials said.
Jess Ford of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress' investigative arm, who wrote a 2004 report on the visa-revocation process, said the State Department "has the authority to revoke visas" without permission from other agencies, but it "relies heavily on law-enforcement and intelligence people to provide information" on which to base such decisions.
Mr. Kennedy said that, "unless the evidence [against a visa holder] is absolutely overwhelming,"the State Department follows the interagency process. "If we get partial information, we seek more information from the intelligence community. Maybe they don't want us to revoke the visa because they are following the guy" or they want him to come to the U.S. so they can arrest him, he said.
Mr. Ford's GAO report from five years ago said that "weaknesses remained in the implementation of the revocation process, especially in the timely transmission of information among federal agencies." It also found that the State Department took months in some cases "to revoke visas after receiving a recommendation to do so."
Mr. Kennedy said things have improved significantly since 2004, and revocations are now processed immediately, including "in the middle of the night and on weekends."
He said another area that needs improvement is how the government notifies commercial airlines about revoked visas, so they keep holders of such visas off U.S.-bound planes. In the case of a terrorist, his name is usually put on the "no fly" list as soon as the revocation is processed, but not all canceled visas belong to known terrorists.
Sometimes the government does not learn that a passenger with a revoked visa is headed to the U.S. until the airline sends the flight manifest, and by then the traveler already could have a boarding pass or even be in the air, as was the case with Mr. Abdulmutallab.
"With growing concern about the reach from al Qaeda in Yemen, and perhaps other regional satellites, it's imperative for the State Department to ensure our visa-processing and vetting processes are as secure and nimble as possible," Mr. Zarate said.
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