Foreign Students and Scholars in the Age of TerrorismJanice Jacobs, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services
Testimony before the Committee on Science U.S. House of Representatives
March 26, 2003
Thank you very much Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. I welcome the opportunity to testify today regarding the visa process for students and scholars.
Visa work has always been about striking the proper balance between protecting US borders and facilitating legitimate travel. Our operating environment changed forever on September 11, 2001, and there is no turning back the clock. Security is and will continue to be the top priority in the processing of visas for international visitors. The State Department is committed to strengthening the visa process as a tool for protecting U.S. national security interests. We've made a number of changes since 9/11 and will continue to do so in response to the security needs of our nation and recommendations by law enforcement and national security agencies, and of course the Department of Homeland Security. At the same time, the State Department is keenly aware of the need to balance national security interests with other strategic interests such as promoting scientific and academic exchange and the overall health of our economy.
Enhancing U.S. security means pushing borders out to our visa processing posts abroad. Here, I am happy to report that we've made enormous progress in identifying individuals who may present a threat to our nation through enhanced inter-agency datasharing. Since 9/11, we've added over 7.3 million new records, primarily FBI NCIC (criminal history) data, to our Consular Lookout Automated Support System (CLASS). The "TIPOFF" database on suspected or actual terrorists has incorporated into CLASS over 73,000 entries, an increase from 48,000 records on 9/11/2001.
We try to work "smart". We have been big users of automated tools. Thanks to the work of Congress our Machine Readable Visa fees have allowed us to invest in technology. We continue to refine this technology and to increase connectivity between the Department, overseas posts, and other agencies. But technology can't do it all. We're working with other interested agencies on a rational, more targeted clearance process that is both transparent and predictable.
We're in pretty good shape to find the "bad guys" who have already been identified by other agencies and are included in our visa lookout system. Dealing with what we don't know is of course more of a challenge. For that we have the security advisory opinion process to permit other agencies to take a look at a case before we issue.
The Department of State has long used specialized clearance procedures for the review of visa applications of individuals whose proposed activities in the U.S. may have security-related or other concerns. These programs carried out by the State Department at the request of and in coordination with other Federal agencies. The Visas Mantis program is one such program related to technology transfer concerns. Federal agencies participating in the Visas Mantis program review select applications and provide the information needed by State to determine an applicant's visa eligibility under section 212(a)(3)(A)(i)(II) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That section provides in relevant part that:
Any alien who a consular officer or the [Secretary of Homeland Security] knows, or has reasonable ground to believe, seeks to enter the United States to engage solely, principally, or incidentally in - (i) any activity . . . (II) to violate or evade any law prohibiting the export from the United States of goods, technology, or sensitive information . . . . is ineligible to receive a visa.
Prior to 1998, the Department reviewed cases for controlled technology, sensitive information concerns under several nationality-based programs, e.g., CHINEX for PRC nationals, SPLEX for nationals of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In 1998, the Department consolidated these nationality-based, Cold War era screening procedures into the Visas Mantis program. The Visas Mantis program is an effective tool for U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to support consular officers in screening individuals and entities that seek to gain controlled goods, technology and sensitive information in violation of US export laws.
Most other special clearance procedures are triggered by clear and objective circumstances, such as applicant nationality or CLASS name check results. However, in cases of illegal technology transfer, falling within the purview of INA Section 212(a)(3)(A)(i)(II), the Department must rely to a great extent on the observations and judgment of consular officers in the field to identify applicants of any nationality who may be subject to this ineligibility. To assist officers in this difficult and vitally important task the Department, in conjunction with Federal intelligence and national security agencies, regularly updates a list of policy objectives and critical technologies, which trigger special clearance requests.
In deciding to submit an application for review for reasons related to possible illegal technology transfer, the consular officer must first determine whether the applicant's proposed activity in the United States would involve exposure to any of fifteen sensitive technologies included in the Technology Alert List (TAL). In deciding whether one of the listed TAL activities may be in violation of US export control laws, the consular officer must review that activity in light of the following broad policy objectives related to technology transfer:
Third, consular officers may send to Washington any case that appears to warrant further interagency review.
The Visas Mantis program, therefore, provides the Department and other interested agencies with an effective mechanism to screen out those individuals who seek to evade or violate our laws governing the export of goods, technology or sensitive information. This screening in turn addresses significant issues of national security and works to enhance our national security. The Visas Mantis program allows all participating agencies to provide information and raise any particular concerns they may have regarding the applicant and/or the proposed activities in the U.S.
The Department strives to balance this effort to protect our national security with our responsibility to facilitate legitimate travel and scientific exchange. We recognize that scientific exchange supporting a wide range of research and development in the United States is a vital component of our national security. We, therefore, have worked diligently and creatively to clear legitimate travelers subject to Mantis clearances as quickly as possible and, at the same time, to deter or prevent potentially inadmissible travelers from gaining entry to the United States.
The Visas Mantis caseload grew significantly from calendar year 2001 through 2002. At any given moment, we have from 1,500 to 2,000 Mantis cases pending in this interagency review process. The increase is attributable to increasingly vigorous interagency review of Mantis cases, and has led to an increasing number of refusals under section 212(a)(3)(A)(i)(II) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
The Mantis caseload represents only about 10 percent of all visa cases submitted by posts abroad for review through the security advisory opinion (SAO) process. SAO submissions across the board have risen dramatically since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. These increases have stressed the review process and forced some procedural changes which increased the amount of time needed to complete SAO reviews.
In addition to a Visas Mantis check, some students and academics fall under the Visas Condor program that began in January 2002 in counter-terrorism purposes. In consultation with U.S. national security and law enforcement agencies, the Department implemented the Visas Condor program to ensure that nationals of certain countries of concern meeting certain criteria were subject to a security review.
Some of the delays that you have heard about are the result of the Visas Condor, not Visas Mantis program. When the Condor program was first instituted, it was put on a "clock," a procedure traditionally used in many of the clearances. If the Department had not received derogatory information from a cooperating agency or agencies within thirty (30) days of the date of the cable, then we could assume that other agencies had no objection to the issuance of a visa. The agencies assured us that they could and would notify us within that 30 day period. If post did not hear from the Department by the end of that time, it could process the case to conclusion.
The Visas Condor program resulted in a significant increase in the number of cables sent to Federal agencies for review. All participating agencies found their resources strained as they took on substantially more work. In the summer of 2002, in consultation with other agencies, the "clock" system was ended because it was no longer reliable. Agencies were having trouble meeting the 30-day period. Instead, we now wait for an affirmative response from agencies before approving a visa.
These two enhancements to our security screenings - the Visas Condor program that added a significant population subject to security advisory opinions and the need for an affirmative response from the other participating agencies - resulted in significant delays in processing all security advisory opinion requests, including Visas Mantis clearances.
Since last summer, each agency has taken measures to improve or increase resources to address these delays. The Bureau of Consular Affairs also worked to better improve its performance as the clearinghouse for compiling other agency responses and provide a coordinated reply to the consular officer overseas. In concert with other agencies we implemented a number of procedures to improve our use of automation and add personnel. To date these measures include:
The Department has engaged in significant outreach to our federal partners to work through problems and to improve predictability for the scientific and academic communities about visa processing. This outreach includes regular and frequent contact with the Homeland Security Council since its inception in September 2001, and now with the Department of Homeland Security. Our goal is to rationalize the clearance process in light of today's national security threats and re-establish rational, transparent clearance procedures that focus on those applicants who present the highest risk. The Department also participates regularly and frequently in interagency meetings convened by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The proposed Interagency Panel on Advanced Science and Security (IPASS) proposed by the Administration grew out of such meetings as a response to Homeland Security Presidential Directive 2 Section 3. The proposed IPASS process is meant to increase the involvement of US Government scientific experts to work with intelligence, counterintelligence, and law enforcement representatives to advise the Department of science-related visa applications, beginning with students and visiting scholars. The White House (Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Homeland Security Council), the Department of Homeland Security, and the Bureau of Consular Affairs continue to convene meetings to work out details of the IPASS process. Members of the US Government scientific community participate actively in these meetings, to the extent allowed by their level, if any, of security clearance.
The Department is in direct contact with the scientific and academic community regarding visa policies and procedures. In various briefings, we have explained the basis for the new security-related procedures and the challenges we face in today's world of protecting U.S. security interests while facilitating the travel of those coming to the U.S. for legitimate purposes. The Department is committed to working towards a continued free flow of people, information and ideas that is the foundation of this great country. Secure borders, open doors, that is what we are working towards every day.
Thank you Mr. Chairman. This concludes my statement. I would be happy to answer any questions.