Thursday, March 25, 2010

Abdulmutallab (TWA "Christmas Bomber") Had a Visa Denial Reversed

The WaPo has a bit of a ho-hum story tonight about the complicated visa history of the "Christmas Bomber," young Mister Abdulmutallab of Nigeria.

Visa denial was reversed for terrorism suspect in 2004:

A U.S. consular official originally denied terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a visa to enter the United States in 2004 after finding false information on his application, but that official was overruled by a supervisor, according to senior government sources.

-- snip --

Abdulmutallab's visa history was recently shared with the Senate Intelligence Committee and House lawmakers, who have been exploring whether the government missed any red flags and could have prevented the Nigerian from entering the country.

-- snip --

Officials said the consulate supervisor who authorized Abdulmutallab's visa concluded that he had strong ties to Nigeria and no derogatory information in his background and that his inaccurate answer about having been denied a visa might have been based on a misunderstanding.

"When that judgment was reviewed, the supervisor concluded that this was not a willful misrepresentation and that he had the intent of returning home after visiting the United States," one official explained.

The bottom line is that the 18 year-old Abdulmutallab committed a non-material error on his first visa application, which was forgiven based upon his lack of willful misrepresentation and his strong ties to Nigeria, i.e., his Daddy's $$$$$$$. This all happened before he was radicalized and became a security threat.

Nothing to see here, folks, move along.

As is usually the case, I found the on-line comments readers made about the story more interesting, and sometimes providing a better interpretation of the event, than the news article itself. Here are two if the 32 comments posted as of midnight Thursday:

(MEppinger wrote)

Junior consular officers, who conduct visa interviews in all or our embassies and consulates, are often the most strict in interpreting the regs and denying visas. They take a lot of flack for it, and get a lot of pressure, some from their immediate supervisors, some from higher in the embassy, but MOST from members of Congress.

Congress, before you light into our career diplomats, do us a favor and take a look at your own "constituent services" staff. In particular, look at the boilerplate text of letters sent out in your name when a constituent (or, on occasion, a non-voting resident of your district) complains about a visa denial for a friend or relative. Before you castigate State, change your own office's policies. Only weigh in for people personally and favorably known to you. Help lead all branches of government in defending the integrity of our visa processes. 99% of the time, junior officers are out their on the front lines on their own. They only hear from Congress when a complaint comes in about a visa denied. Why not start but having their backs on visa denials?!

(When you think about it that way, when you think about actually saying "no" to an unknown constituent who writes for help with a visa, it gets a lot harder, doesn't it?)

State Department consular supervisors put pressure on their junior officers to reverse visa denials in part because of their own years of having to justify having denied this or that visa, including answering hundreds of letters from members of Congress over visa denials.

Visa decisions are the most petty and the most crucial part of our front-line defenses. At the same time that you ask State to make some changes, Congress, do your part.


(deparker2001 wrote)

As a retired consular officer--no I was not the reviewer in 2004. I retired in 2002--please permit me to add a modicum of reality to this discussion.

For the misrepresentation to be a grounds for the denial of a visa application it must be "material." That means that the information must be so important that were the truth to be known, then the visa would be denied. Now a previous application is not material and that fact can be easily discovered through normal name checks which probably occurred in this case. In any event the visa issuance was perfectly valid in this case. The young man traveled to the US and left the country. And he wasn't a jihadist in those days, as far as we know. So a "security officer" would not have found any reason to refuse his visa application in 2004.

The problem with this case has nothing to do with the visa issuance. The problem was the lack of coordination between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. If the information regarding the training of jihadists in Yemen had been known and if someone had checked up on some of these young men, then they might have known that this chap was a danger in 2009. If there are fixes to be made, then they must be made within the intelligence community.

Both of those readers sound like they know what they are talking about.


Anonymous said...

It's Friday, and that means that the Sixth Weekly State Department Blog Roundup is up - and you're on it!

Here is the link:

(If I quoted your text or used your photo(s) and you would rather I had not, please let me know. Please also be sure to check the link(s) that I put up to you, in order to verify that they work properly. If you would rather that I had not referenced you, and/or do not want me to reference you in the future, please also contact me.)


Anonymous said...

Consular supervisors are trained not to override denials, and rarely override an issuance, at least in recent years. If you didn't do the interview, you can't put everything in context. I agree that "forgetting" to admit to a refusal is not material for purposes of a 6C1 refusal. However, forgetting to tell the interviewing officer the truth raises credibility questions, which makes it harder to overcome 214b.

Consul-At-Arms said...

As Anonymous notes above, consular supervisors aren't supposed to override visa decisions by consular adjudicators unless the law has been improperly applied.

Failing to reveal a previous visa application/refusal on a current application or during a new interview is certainly willful enough, but it's not material since State's own electronic visa records mean that attempting to conceal that information can't materially effect the adjudication decision, since the officer will have the correct, concealed, information anyway.

Sorry about the runon sentence.

But the credibility issue also applies.

I've quoted you and linked to you here:

Anonymous said...

The materiality issue is nonsense. The applicant hoped to hide his previous denial, but on this occasion it was caught. If he had been a visa waiver applicant who lied about a visa application denial, he would have been refused admission and immediately removed from the U.S. His lie, yes, it was a lie, showed that he should have not been approved. He certainly lied about his intent. No mention that he was coming to kill people. I always found it amusing that when working at the INS supervisors were more concerned about complaint letters than doing their jobs. And denying aliens admission was part of their jobs. The lie was red flag. Too bad that some State Department bureaucrats cannot realize that.

It is clear that Daddy's money, not any ties to Nigeria, were the deciding factor. Just who was it that brought this to the attention of the supervisor? Some email from the American Embassy in Nigeria? Some quid-pro-quo for some favor? Who knows. But it is not accurate to say that he was not radicalized at the time, as he was attending a confab of radical Islamists in Houston.