America still struggles to vet entering foreigners for national interest threats
The success of the September 11 plot depended on the ability of the hijackers to obtain visas and pass an immigration and customs inspection in order to enter the United States. It also depended on their ability to remain here undetected while they worked out the operational details of the attack. If they had failed on either count — entering and becoming embedded — the plot could not have been executed.
— “9/11 and Terrorist Travel”, Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States monograph, p. 7.
A decade after the 9/11 terror attacks, in 2011, U.S. State Department consular officers in Saudi Arabia expeditiously granted local citizen Naif Abdulaziz Alfallaj an F-2 student spouse visa, permitting him to enter the United States. Alfallaj settled with his wife, an F-1 student visa holder, in the Oklahoma City suburb of Weatherford where she was attending the local university.1
But State Department security screeners in Saudi Arabia somehow missed the discoverable red-alert fact that in 2000 Alfallaj joined Al Qaeda and trained in the group’s notorious al Faruq camp outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. It was the same terrorist camp — in the same time frame — where al Qaeda leadership selected, organized, and trained the 9/11 hijackers for the attacks on America.2 They would have been campmates.
Those State Department screeners, who might still have felt a weight of responsibility since Osama bin Laden and 15 of his 9/11 hijackers were born and radicalized in the kingdom, would almost certainly have denied Alfallaj’s visa had they learned of his common past with them. After all, the history of terrorist visa abuse was well known by 2011, that 9/11 hijackers entered the United States after they submitted 23 visa applications during the course of the plot, 22 of which a less-schooled generation of U.S. adjudicators approved.3
But ostensibly more-schooled immigration vetters of the post-9/11 generation did not know — but easily could have with a certain check — that the applicant Alfallaj very likely trained among the hijackers as a contemporary.
Instead, this visa security screening lapse allowed an al Faruq camp veteran to fly into America just as did his deceased campmates 10 years earlier — legally, with a visa based on fraud and lies.4 Alfallaj remained free in the American heartland, his alarming history and intentions unknown for another five years. Who he really was only came to light in October 2016, in a darkly ironic way.
It did when he applied to a pilot school near Oklahoma City, just minutes from the flight school in Norman where, infamously, two of the 9/11 terrorists from Afghanistan camps received pilot training for the airliners they hijacked.5 In late 2016, the school provided his fingerprints to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA, formed as a result of the attacks), which ran them and got the hit. Alfallaj’s prints matched 15 found on a 2000 “Mujahedeen Data Form” application, which Al Qaeda bureaucracy in those days required aspiring terrorist camp trainees to submit. The prints had been awaiting a match in U.S. databases since December 1, 2001, when American soldiers recovered them in a raid on an al Qaeda safe house in Afghanistan.
During the lengthy counterterrorism investigation that followed, FBI agents found that Allfallaj had remained true to violent jihad while in the United States even if the public record reveals no sign that he was going to attack the homeland. Two years after moving to Oklahoma in 2013, he joined an online extremist forum and, using his old al Faruq camp nickname, expressed desire to join armed jihad in Afghanistan or Chechnya.6 He didn’t get the chance to kill there or here.
On February 5, 2018, the FBI arrested the 34-year-old Alfallaj on charges that he lied on the visa application and to the FBI about his terrorist past. In 2019, a federal judge sentenced Alfallaj to 12 years in prison, after which he will be deported to Saudi Arabia.
The Weaponization of Travel Visas and Entry Permits
The 9/11 attacks could not have been carried out without visas. A brief, historic overview of the contemporary security vetting frameworks provides context for what the national security establishment did in the 20 years since the hijackers secured their visas to kill 2,996 people, and helps light the path forward.
The 19 al Qaeda terrorist conspirators applied for 23 non-immigrant visitor visas at five U.S. consulates or embassies overseas and obtained 22.7 One conspirator entered on an F-1 student visa, and the rest on B-1 or B-2 business or tourist visas, according to the 2004 monograph “9/11 and Terrorist Travel” by staff of the National Commission on Terror Attacks in the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission. The 19 hijackers used 364 aliases, including different spellings of their names for renewals and on other applications.
Plenty of other fail points became evident later, after the conspirators reached a second layer of defense at American airports, such as lying their way through various customs agent inspections, and a third layer of overstaying or misusing their visas months afterward. Once the operation was underway, for instance, the conspirators left and reentered the country 34 times on their visas over 21 months through nine airports, succeeding all but once.
But the most pivotal fail point was and is the inception moment: The first-applications for and approval of travel documents by State Department consular officials at the American consulates and embassies abroad, most of these occurring in Saudi Arabia. None of the other failures could have happened had the terrorists been stopped at that first portal.
At the time, State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs officers stationed in 200 posts abroad, adjudicating some 10 million non-immigrant visitor visas, had already become somewhat sensitized to terrorist infiltration since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing investigation revealed that almost all of those conspirators exploited laxity and vulnerabilities in the visa vetting system.8 By 2000, State Department applicant reviewers had access to terrorist watch list databases and other ones for known criminal histories for running names. Reviewers also had the authority to conduct personal interviews if any red flags were raised during screening, although doing so was not mandatory.9
A growing awareness of terrorist infiltration was also starting to permeate other border control agencies by the late 1990s. After the U.S. Department of Justice in 1998 indicted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden of a series of earlier terror acts, for instance, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) disseminated a threat advisory to all immigration inspectors at ports of entry warning of possible infiltration into the United States by his followers. The advisory called for “hard inspections of certain visitors” from Middle Eastern countries where al Qaeda was present.10 Separately, the CIA warned that al Qaeda operatives were trying to enter the United States for an unspecified attack at an unspecified time.
Still, State Department consular officers stationed abroad continued to prioritize not terrorists trying to secure visas, but rather the detection of “intending immigrants”, meaning people who sought temporary visas, but planned to overstay them and live illegally in the United States.11 Airport inspectors, meanwhile, were looking for incoming drug traffickers.
The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (2004) framed the circumstances this way: “Neither the State Department’s consular officers nor the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s inspectors and agents were ever considered full partners in a national counterterrorism effort. Protecting borders was not a national security issue before 9/11.”12
Initially, there were 27 on the attack team, including their coordinator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But some of the new vetting processes tangentially worked; five early conspirators were denied visas on various grounds unrelated to terrorism. The 19 were left after two other early conspirators secured visas but never used them to travel; a third (the so-called “20th hijacker” not prosecuted until years after the attacks, in which he did not participate) came in on a visa waiver from Germany that bypassed ordinary screening.
Assuming names were perfunctorily run through terrorism watch list and criminal history databases, there could have been no match for 17 of the 19 hijackers since they were “clean”, or not known to intelligence agencies as terrorists, and therefore were not on the watch list. The remaining two were known to the CIA as al Qaeda terrorists, but were not placed on the State Department-accessible terrorist watch list before they entered the United States, the 9/11 Commission report stated.
In hindsight, plenty of other clues about the 19 applicants could have prompted further investigative measures as part of the initial screening that might have discovered and short-circuited the attacks at that first gate, such as personal interviews or double checks of claimed stories and travel purposes. For instance, many of the applicants presented improbably brand-new passports doctored with potentially detectable fraudulent entry-exit stamps. Al Qaeda travel document forgers had inserted these to hide the operatives’ travel to Afghanistan for terrorist training.13 But American adjudicators never questioned the anomalies, if they even noticed them.
Also, many of the visa application forms were incomplete or incomprehensible, which should have flagged them for denial or further inquiry.14 For instance, the operation’s chief tactical planner and coordinator, Pakistani citizen Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, submitted an incomplete application for a tourist visa using a Saudi passport that wasn’t his under a made-up alias name that could have been detected. Some proffered detectably phony purpose-of-travel stories.
But State Department diplomats in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Yemen, juggling large caseloads and not focused on detecting terrorist travel, caught none of these clues and granted the visas.
Indeed, only two of the hijackers were ever summoned to consular offices for personal interviews, which were optional at the time, the “9/11 and Terrorist Travel” monograph reported. A 2002 State Department Inspector General Report blamed policy decisions to make interviews optional on “the rapidly increasing volume of applications beginning in the 1970s, coupled with serious staffing shortages.”15 Two other hijackers lied on their visa applications in what the monograph described as “detectable ways,” but were never further questioned, the report stated. Others “made detectable false statements on their visa applications or to border officials” inside the United States, but this information never got back to anyone who later renewed the visas.16
Most of the rest, as the “9/11 and Terrorist Travel” report summed up, “simply had their applications approved and their passports stamped with a U.S. visa. Consular officers were not trained to detect terrorists in a visa interview.”
Background: Immigration Enforcement as Counterterrorism
The George W. Bush administration immediately responded by drawing the INS into its new “war on terrorism”, albeit initially in unsustainable ways. For at least the short term, the administration ordered the Border Patrol and U.S. Customs to close the northern and southern land borders for a time. It put a 20-day hold on all visa applications by military-aged men from 26 countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia where al Qaeda and other terrorist groups had operated.
An Interview Project had federal agents interview several thousand nonimmigrant aliens from the countries.17 A Visas Condor Program used FBI agents to conduct additional security screening of applicants from the 26 Muslim-majority countries and deny or even revoke visas to suspected terrorists.18 A National Security Entry-Exit Registration System program was to register and record the arrival, stay, and departures of visa-holders from the countries of terrorism concern.19
Most eventually foundered on issues of economic disruption, civil liberty concerns, efficacy, or human resource availability. But the new path was clear: once investigation showed how immigrant screening systems failed, a raft of national legislation fused immigration enforcement and counterterrorism. Improved visa vetting was on the agenda from the beginning for all agencies that did it.
The Homeland Security Act of 2002, for instance, established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and placed newly created border security agencies together under its rubric alongside other agencies oriented toward counterterrorism security.20 The law ordered training to consular officials about “specific security threats relating to the adjudication of individual visa applications or classes of applications”. It also mandated an accountability rule, requiring evaluation of consular officers in their performance on the “processing and adjudication of applications for visas”.
The Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004 mandated that consular officers conduct face-to-face interviews with all nonimmigrant visa applicants between the ages of 14 and 79, rather than the previous practice where officers had discretion to pick and choose.21 The law required establishment of a visa and passport security program in the State Department and authorized hiring 150 more consular officers.
Also out of the Homeland Security Act 2002 came U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as part of DHS. Along with the State Department’s corps of consular officers, USCIS occupies the forefront of security screening for a significant range of humanitarian admittance petitions.22
USCIS wields responsibility for the security screening and adjudication of refugees in foreign lands and asylum claimants in the homeland, as well as applications for lawful permanent residence (green cards), nonimmigrant change-of-status petitions, and for naturalized U.S. citizenship.23 In fact, processing humanitarian admissions and petitions for permanent status makes up most of the workload for some 19,000 USCIS employees and contractors working in 83 U.S.-based field offices and in 200 others around the world. Lawful Permanent Resident applicants must submit to physical and mental examinations.24
Since the early 2000s, many other improvements to immigrant and non-immigrant vetting were implemented in coordination among DHS border enforcement agencies, the FBI, and the intelligence agencies. Processes have required more of applicants, for one. For example, foreign nationals seeking visas from consular officials were required to submit photographs, fingerprints, aliases, and to sometimes back up biographic claims with home government documents.
Other improvements featured more intelligence sharing, expanded interoperability of more comprehensive databases of “lookout” terror watch lists, criminal history biometrics, and biographical information; screening of airline passenger manifests; and cooperative relationships with allied nations that began allowing U.S. queries and background checks on applicants. The State Department has imported sharply increased name-check records from the FBI and the intelligence community into its Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS), from 10 million records on 9/11 to some 42.5 million by 2012.25 As well, DHS began running the names of Visa Waiver Program travelers, foreign nationals from some 40 countries with agreements with the United States for visa-free travel, through terror watch-list databases.
Agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) National Targeting Center, and the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service were thrown into the effort. All stood up teams providing for a variety of layered vetting assistance operations to support overseas embassies and post-vetting work at airports. In 2003, DHS stood up a Visa Security Program that had ICE officers reviewing visa applications at more than 30 embassies and consulates by 2019 in order to prevent visa applicants deemed national security threats from entering the United States.26 CBP officers, meanwhile, started screening passenger manifests at certain foreign airports.
Immigration advocates, civil libertarians, and other stakeholders, such as university systems that rely on foreign student tuition revenue, have long opposed these measures on grounds that they slow processing and are unfair, and succeeded in attenuating some.27 But while tallying prevented national security harms with any accuracy presents obvious difficulties, measures like some of those described, as well as a fairly focused top-down prioritization of national security, are presumed to have made the nation at least some degree safer.28
The U.S. homeland security enterprise does not routinely report publicly the number of visas that are rejected on national security and terrorism grounds. However, some publicly available data points have indicated some efficacy in the visa-vetting enterprise stood up after 9/11.
For instance, a 2019 GAO report stated that in fiscal year 2017, State Department adjudicators rejected 1,256 applicants based on “terrorism and other security-related concerns”, such as “foreign fighters and potential terrorists, human traffickers, and drug smugglers”.29 Of the 1,256 rejected for security-related concerns, 357 were specifically for “terrorism-related” reasons. (Of those, a footnote explains, DHS later reversed decisions for 273).
From 2012 through 2016, about .05 percent of several million rejected applications were for terrorism and other security-related concerns, meaning at least another several thousand applicants were rejected during those years based on terrorism and the other security-related concerns mentioned.30
Janice Jacobs, the head of consular affairs at the State Department, testifying before a congressional committee about the Christmas Day 2009 “underwear bomber” vetting failure, disclosed that from 2001 through 2010, State Department consular officers had revoked more than 2,800 visas “for suspected links to terrorism”.31
As a 2007 Government Accountability Office assessment of the busy five prior years noted:
GAO’s work indicates that the government has strengthened the nonimmigrant visa process as an antiterrorism tool. New measures added rigor to the process by expanding the name-check system used to screen applicants, requiring in-person interviews for nearly all applicants, and revamping consular officials’ training to focus on counterterrorism.32
But the same report — reflecting a view seen in other GAO reports over the years — pointed out that not all was well. “The immigrant visa process”, the 2007 GAO report stated, “may pose potential security risks, and we are reviewing this issue.”
Recent history shows that when cases of vetting failure become publicly known, publicized, and studied, American leaders are more likely to quickly respond with fixes and resources, but not when failures remain outside public sight.
Lights Still Blinking, but Mostly Out of Sight and Mind
The most recent emblematic case that sparked public outcry and government response was the Christmas Day 2009 attempted downing of a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit by the 23-year-old Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is now notorious as the “underwear bomber”. Al Qaeda sent Abdulmutallab to the United States with a sophisticated bomb in his underwear. It malfunctioned when detonated, a close call that drew prolonged and intense media attention.
For the first time since 9/11, the case refocused national attention on terrorist screening during the visa issuance process, unavoidably drawing in the White House and Congress, when it became public knowledge that U.S. consular officers in London issued Abdulmatallab a multi-year tourist visa the year before, in June 2008.33 The State Department later insisted its employees could have found nothing that year indicating he was already a fanatical Islamic extremist.
But that claim is debatable; more than two years earlier, Abdulmatallab had become infatuated with the online sermons of al Qaeda cleric and U.S. citizen Anwar al Awlaki, in 2005 and in London, where State Department screeners looked at his application and would have had to interview him under the 9/11 reforms.34 The screeners missed a flag that should have prompted questions and further investigation that might have revealed his well-established radicalization: Abdulmatallab omitted from his 2008 application that he’d previously been denied a tourist visa twice in 2004 on technicalities.35
The young man was so deeply captivated by jihadist ideology that by 2009 he went to train for jihad under Awlaki, his ideological mentor, in Yemen. It was Awlaki who dispatched Abdulmatallab on the Christmas Day attack, for which then-President Barack Obama later ordered Awlaki killed by a drone strike.
But even if adjudicators missed that first 2008 vetting opportunity, a second opportunity to revoke the visa was botched. More than a month before the attack, the student’s father, a wealthy former Nigerian government official, contacted U.S. authorities to warn that his son had radicalized and was plotting an attack.36 A consular officer misspelled Abdulmutallab’s name when conducting a name check, an error that was quickly corrected. Analysts put him on a low-level watch list, but not on the No Fly List.37 Nor did the State Department revoke his visa even after this.
The case of the underwear bomber is significant in several respects. For one, the case drew a high degree of media coverage and government investigation for the security screening failures, which drove policy and process fixes of the identified failed parts of systems.38 Second, as a result of the media focus, the U.S. government followed with action to strengthen visa issuance and revocation criteria, enhanced procedures to strengthen visa-related processes, and improved the State Department’s internal program for nominating terror suspects to terror watch lists (Visa Viper) and ensuring the information flowed.39
In the decade or so since the underwear bomber case, dozens of other vetting failures that resulted in harm to U.S. national interests have occurred outside the limelight. These cases do not only involve Islamic terrorists on tourist visas.
“National interest” is a more appropriate delineator because it covers a gamut of problem visitors beyond terrorists that warrant policymakers’ awareness about visa integrity systems they also defeated. Here, the accepted definition of “national interest” is the right of the American citizenry to live and thrive in an environment free from all potential threats to life, liberty, and security.40 After all, vetting failure has facilitated the unnecessary introduction of other threat types into the United States besides terrorists and their supporting sympathizers, using other modes of permitted entry not used by the 9/11 hijackers.
Among these threats are foreign agents working against the national interest on J cultural exchange visas and F student visas; war criminals who defeated screening for citizenship applications; and spies who got past Optional Practical Training authorizations. Others beat screenings for asylum cases at the southern border, refugee applications, diversity visas, and for green cards.
In numerous cases, screening can be said to have failed multiple times over periods of years. Following is a sampling of security vetting failures that undermine U.S. interests as much as Islamic terrorism does.
A Russian Agent Slipped Vetting to Operate on a Student Visa
One of numerous foreign agents conducting espionage or political influence operations who entered on student visas despite reasonably discoverable warning signs, was Russian national Maria Butina.
In August 2016, Butina obtained an F-1 student visa to pursue graduate studies at American University in Washington, D.C. But a much later FBI counterintelligence investigation learned what State Department security screeners in Russia apparently overlooked: Since at least 2015 and possibly as early as 2013, Butina began working as an agent of Russian intelligence services and went on to use her student visa to run political influence operations targeting American political leadership.41
According to an FBI complaint, Russia deployed Butina and others like her in influence operations against the U.S. national interest in that they intended to “create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-U.S. political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions.”
A government motion arguing for denial of bond and continued detention after her 2018 arrest observed that Butina “engaged in a years-long conspiracy to work covertly in the United States as an undeclared agent of Russian Federation intelligence officers in order to advance the interests of her home country. The plan for Butina also required, and she demonstrated, a willingness to use deceit in a visa application to move to the United States and bring the plan to fruition.”42
Never a focus of media reporting, publicly discoverable hints of a putative graduate student’s unusual connections to the Kremlin were plentiful for State Department screeners, but apparently missed. They would have had a chance to question her about her Kremlin connections and intentions in direct interviews and to check her story against U.S. intelligence service resources. For one, Butina was already working as special assistant to a ranking Russian politician close to the Kremlin, identified since as Alexander Torshin.43 He was a well-known public figure who served as a legislator in the Russian Federation and later as a top official of the Russian Central Bank, with presumable links to federation intelligence services.44 As well, prior to obtaining the student visa, Butina had been politically active in the youth wing of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, the BBC later reported.45
While studying political and educational science at the Altai State University in her Siberian hometown of Barnaul, Butina was politically engaged and active in the university debating society, where her views could have been plumbed.46 Demonstrating her Kremlin connections even before receiving her student visa, in December 2015, Butina arranged meetings with National Rifle Association officials and “high-level Russian officials” organized by Torshin, which was discoverable to visa adjudicators.47 She would later press those contacts after she entered the country.
State Department visa vetting discovery of any of these facts might well have led to a visa-approval delay for further counterintelligence investigation or a denial. Instead, Butina and Torshin went on to penetrate conservative social networks and groups such as the National Rifle Association as part of a Russia-directed influence campaign until her July 2018 arrest on charges of illegally operating as an unregistered foreign agent.48 She served 15 months in prison and was deported to Russia in 2019.
A Chinese Agent Slipped Vetting to Join the U.S. Army
Likewise, agents of the Chinese Communist Party military intelligence arms also appear to have gamed security screeners to secure student and cultural exchange visas and went on to commit grave harm to the national interest.
Some, though, got past U.S. security screeners at obscure junctures of the system, also never reported. One that stands out is the case of Chinese national Ji Chaoqun, who arrived on an F-1 student visa in 2013 to study electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology.49 He eventually enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve under a program that fast-tracks the way to U.S. citizenship.
A later FBI counterintelligence investigation that led to his 2018 arrest alleged that Chaoqun was feeding sensitive U.S. defense information from his school to Chinese intelligence services.50 Among the damage he allegedly wrought to the U.S. interests was the provision of background checks of eight American defense contractors.
It does not seem reasonable to expect State Department screeners to have uncovered Chaoqun’s alleged work for the Chinese spy agency, even with post-9/11 tools.
But two other opportunities for vetting discoveries came and went. USCIS reviewers had a chance to knock him out in November 2016, when Chaoqun applied for Optional Practical Training (OPT) after school ended, a program that would extend his legal stay by up to two years.51 On his application, the government indictment alleges that he fraudulently claimed he would work for a company that had never actually hired him. The discovery of this alleged lie, perhaps through a phone check with the Illinois company, would have shortened Chaoqun’s depredations inside the United States and possibly also unraveled his espionage mission.
Instead, Chaoqun was left free, on the basis of his fraudulently obtained OPT, to become a soldier with the U.S. Army Reserves under the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest program (MAVNI), which offers recipients a fast-track path to naturalized citizenship.52 There, a second vetting process failed.
The full-background MAVNI security vetting process, done by the Department of Defense, likewise missed the OPT fraud and his undercover intelligence work, a second reasonable opportunity to discover his national security depredations. Instead, Ji successfully enlisted in 2016 as an E4 specialist as part of an alleged conspiracy with Chinese intelligence to obtain sensitive classified U.S. defense materials.53
The FBI caught on to Chaoqun from other, related investigations. Chaoqun stood charged as of this writing with acting as an unregistered foreign agent, wire fraud, and making false statements on his applications.
A Guatemalan War Criminal Slipped Vetting to Become U.S. Citizen
Repeated screening failures led to an even more diverse array of affronts to the U.S. national interest, to include providing U.S. sanctuary to at least several war criminals since 2008. The case of accused Guatemala war criminal Jorge Sosa Orantes stands out.
Sosa Orantes commanded and personally participated in the 1982 massacre by his commando unit during Guatemala’s long civil war of 162 Dos Erros villagers, about 40 percent of them children.54 Sosa Orantes escaped justice for many more years than necessary after slipping through ostensibly much-improved post-9/11 security vetting processes in 2008.
Sosa Orantes and his unit surrounded Dos Erros on a mission to arrest guerilla fighters who had earlier ambushed a military convoy, killed soldiers, and seized weapons.55 He and his soldiers murdered the men, systematically raped the women and children, and then smashed their skulls with sledgehammers and threw 162 of them into the town well. Sosa Orantes at one point personally ordered that an infant be thrown into the village well and then dropped a hand grenade down it and fired a gun into the screaming survivors.56
In about 1985, Sosa Orantes deserted the military, flew to San Francisco, and applied for asylum, claiming he had fought on the other side as a guerilla and was himself persecuted by the Guatemala military, according to media reports.57 USCIS denied his asylum application for unknown reasons. But no matter. Canada granted him asylum instead and then, in 1998, he married a U.S. citizen. Through the marriage, the pre-9/11 USCIS granted him a Lawful Permanent Residence green card that year. He moved to Riverside County, Calif., and quietly worked incognito as a karate instructor.
Years into supposed post-9/11 improvements in security vetting, in 2008, he applied for U.S. citizenship — and was approved in 2009.58 The USCIS citizenship vetting process did not uncover the slaughter, despite the fact that Guatemalan authorities had issued 17 arrest warrants for Sosa Orantes and his former soldiers and that the warrants were circulating in public and government realms.59
In 2009, a demand by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to prosecute the perpetrators of the Dos Erros massacre sparked a U.S. investigation that resulted in a 2010 indictment in absentia on immigration fraud charges (the U.S. had no jurisdiction over original crimes in Guatemala). Upon hearing that U.S. authorities were investigating him and had searched his home in 2010, Sosa Orantes fled to Mexico and then to Canada, court records show.60
The following year, Canadian authorities arrested him in Alberta, and in 2012 extradited him to the United States to face the 2010 immigration fraud indictment. A jury convicted him at trial. A federal judge sentenced Sosa Orantes to 120 months for each of the two counts.
The U.S. had rounded up and deported four other of his soldiers by 2016 who had somehow also reached the United States and escaped justice for years.61
Tracking Vetting Failures
The screening failures described above are emblematic of a more universal, if not fully quantified, problem in America’s post-9/11 homeland security regimens: Others also have gotten through that crucial first visa security screening gateway, which many Americans might think had been fixed years ago.
The exact parameters of this visa integrity vulnerability remain unmapped, not just for terrorism, but for the broader range of serious national security threats such as espionage and significant transnational crime like human and drug trafficking.
There is disagreement among experts inside and outside of government as to how often systems built after 9/11 have failed to detect and bar immigrants and nonimmigrants who harbor ill intent or who are judged even foreseeably problematic. But it is obvious from the examples above, and many others, that some foreign nationals are still defeating the systems with unacceptable regularity despite discoverable backgrounds, intentions, and foreseeable national security threats of several kinds.
To mount at least a starting point for a policy focus on the matter, the Center for Immigration Studies is developing a living database seeded — initially — with up to 60 cases in which visa security screening did probably fail, dating from 2008 to the present and into the future. The year 2008 was chosen on the assumption that the first series of 9/11 visa vetting reforms would have fully vested by then.
In its elaborate, three-year investigation of the attacks, the 9/11 Commission discerned those screening failures by reverse-engineering facts gathered afterward, and using some deduction and inference to create hindsight. Likewise, from federal prosecution court records and other public information, CIS is attempting to reverse-engineer case facts to construct a rare hindsight view into more recent vetting failures so that they can, if sometimes imperfectly, be seen, studied, understood, and potentially remedied.
Underscoring the need for more attention and action was the August 2021 fall of Afghanistan to forces of the Taliban. This event hurriedly put some 120,000 Afghans on a trajectory into the U.S.62 Most will enter on various kinds of humanitarian admittance permits despite delayed or insufficient security screening in the rush of crisis, the discovery of passports that did not belong to some, and a woeful history of highly vetted Afghan National Army soldiers and interpreters turning their weapons on American troops.63
The fall of Kabul produced outflows of people into neighboring countries who eventually will apply for U.S. refugee status or have themselves smuggled to the U.S. southern border to apply for asylum.64 But this is only the latest such foreign crisis reinforcing a need to refocus attention on U.S. admittance security and national interest screening procedures. The next one is always on the horizon, driving need, in addition to normal high demand in the absence of crisis.
While he may never have quantified the number of failures, former President Trump understood problems still plagued the system, pushed visa vetting betterment to a top tier of his national security agenda, and mounted both controversial and lesser-known initiatives. However, the Biden administration does not view this national security issue as a priority and has systematically reversed the Trump initiatives.
For instance, one of Trump’s first moves was Executive Order 13769, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”, which sharply curtailed visa issuance to 13 countries, including Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The order was controversial, often erroneously called “the Muslim ban” by opponents. The justification for reducing visa issuances from the listed countries was that “while the visa-issuance process was reviewed and amended after the September 11 attacks to better detect would-be terrorists from receiving visas, these measures did not stop attacks by foreign nationals who were admitted to the United States.”65 The issue to be addressed by the order was valid, that some of the listed countries had no government or deeply dysfunctional governments and simply were incapable of providing information to American visa screening reviewers about derogatory histories and affiliations (Somalia, Libya, and Yemen). Other countries were diplomatically estranged from the United States and would not want to help with security vetting (Iran, Syria, and now Afghanistan).67
Among Biden’s first decisions after entering office in January 2021 was to overturn EO 13769 visa restrictions.
Another Trump initiative, this one a proposed regulatory rule to address a spate of Chinese economic espionage prosecutions involving abuse of F student and J cultural exchange visas, was a proposed regulation requiring more frequent and intense security vetting for those visas, before and after they were issued.67 The regulation also would have applied to non-immigrant visas where Islamic terrorism might develop.
In July 2021, the Biden administration withdrew the proposed regulation to improve visa security with periodic face-to-face interviews and accountability reviews, for instance, to provide extra opportunities to filter for Chinese spies, Islamic terrorists, and fraud. The administration cited opposition among foreign nationals who would be required to comply with the measures.68
It remains to be seen how the Biden administration will approach other Trump visa security initiatives. One regulation Trump managed to get through was a requirement that visa applicants provide the last five years of social media and email account addresses, including the identifiers they used for these.69 The purpose is for “identity resolution and vetting purposes”, the regulation states.
Among the former administration’s other visa-security focused initiatives was the February 6, 2018, Presidential Memorandum (NSPM)-9 establishing a National Vetting Center (NVC) to help address a perceived ongoing vulnerability in the security screening of incoming foreign nationals.70
The NVC was established the following year under the rubric of CBP, envisioned as a central intelligence clearinghouse through which other agencies could eventually request concentrated screening of applicants “to provide a clearer picture of threats to national security, border security, homeland security, or public safety posed by individuals seeking to transit our borders or exploit our immigration system.”71
The current president has relaxed almost all limitations and raised ceilings on entries by refugees, asylum seekers, and foreign visa applicants of all categories. These moves will almost certainly heighten application traffic and strain security screening measures.
At issue is whether visa security improvement may ever again become the clear-cut bipartisan unity issue it was 20 years ago, or will fall prey to partisanship that would have been unimaginable then. The attention drift that accompanies political pendulum swings portends more failure, costly unnecessary prosecutions, near misses, square hits with lost lives, and affronts to the U.S. national interest.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared here and is republished with the author’s permission.
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Todd Bensman is a contributing author for NRN and currently serves as the Texas-based Senior National Security Fellow for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) at www.cis.org, a Washington, D.C. policy institute for which he writes, speaks, and grants media interviews about the nexus between immigration and national security. Bensman was a journalist for 23 years, covering national security after 9/11 for major newspapers.