September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
Statement of Mary A. Ryan Before the Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration Concerning Effective Immigration Controls to Deter Terrorism; October 17, 2001




OCTOBER 17, 2001

Mister Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to explain the role of the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and most particularly our visa processing system, in this country's border security program. I only wish, Mr. Chairman, that the context for this hearing could be different. In that case I could open these remarks by saying how happy I am to appear before you, because I am proud of the systems we have developed over the past several years and that we work very hard to improve each and every day. I would convey again my appreciation for the help that the Congress has given the Department to improve our consular systems by allowing us to retain machine-readable visa (MRV) fees. However, I appear before you today keenly aware of the terrible tragedy that befell our country and all civilized countries on September 11.

In my testimony, Mr. Chairman, I will outline for you what we have been doing to make our consular systems the best in the world and our plans to make those systems even better in the future. During my tenure as Assistant Secretary, the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) has been continually engaged in efforts to design, deploy, and improve the systems that help flag for our consular officers terrorists and criminals among visa applicants. I can say with confidence that ours is a state-of-the-art system that functions as it was designed. At the same time, we continue to seek and exploit new technologies to strengthen our capabilities. If there is any single point I can leave with the committee, it is that that any namecheck system is and will be only as good as the information we receive to put in it.

Visa Processing

I will first focus on non-immigrant visa processing and explain briefly how applicants are processed so that you will understand the environment in which our systems operate. Applicants for non-immigrant visas submit a written application, with a passport and photo, for adjudication by a commissioned consular officer or other designated U.S. citizen. Locally engaged staff assist in visa processing but are not authorized to approve and issue visas.

Visa applications are processed using sophisticated automated systems. Data entry automatically prompts a namecheck through the Department of State’s centralized lookout system (CLASS, the details of which I will discuss later in my testimony). A consular officer must review all hits before the case can be formally approved for printing. There is no override for this feature; it is not possible to print a visa unless a namecheck has been completed and reviewed by an officer.

Consular officers evaluate applications by looking at the full range of criteria established by U.S. immigration law. They review the credibility of professed plans for travel to the U.S. For most visas, applicants must establish that they intend to visit the U.S. only temporarily, are qualified for the visa classification sought, and will undertake only activities consistent with the particular visa status. Applicants must also establish that they are not otherwise ineligible to receive a visa under one of the specific grounds of ineligibility in the Immigration and Nationality Act, including terrorism, drug trafficking and alien smuggling.

In addition to namecheck results, consular officers use a combination of experience, knowledge of local economic, political and cultural conditions, and common sense to evaluate applications. Supporting documentation may be solicited and reviewed as needed. When there are specific signs of fraud or deception, an investigation may be conducted using consular anti-fraud resources.

The ever-growing numbers of visa applications has meant that consular officers must reach decisions in individual cases rapidly. To assist them in doing so, our namecheck technology provides results in real-time. We have used outside linguistic experts to make our search criteria for "hits" as helpful as possible. We have instituted sophisticated Arabic and Russian/Slavic algorithms to identify names regardless of transliteration variations, and are presently developing a similar algorithm for Hispanic names.

Once approved, a visa containing numerous security features and a digitized photo is placed in the alien's passport. The maximum period of visa validity is ten years for multiple entries. The validities of different types of non-immigrant visas are determined on the basis of reciprocity with each foreign government. I should point out, Mr. Chairman, that the period of visa validity has nothing to do with the period for which an alien may remain in the United States. A visa permits an alien to apply for entry to the U.S., but only the INS may authorize such entry and determine the alien's length of stay.

Visa data, including photos and pertinent biographic data, is electronically forwarded to the Consolidated Consular Database maintained in Washington. This database also contains information on refused applications.

Immigrant visas are for persons intending to reside permanently in the United States. U.S. citizens and legal permanent resident aliens, as well as prospective employers, file with the INS petitions on behalf of certain relatives and employees. A special element of U.S. immigration law is the Diversity Visa (DV) for which "winners" are chosen by lottery. Like non-immigrant visa applicants, immigrant visa and DV applicants must undergo namechecks. In addition, an FBI employee at the National Visa Center does a National Criminal Information Center (NCIC) criminal history check of these applicants.

I should note that, while immigrants are covered by NCIC screening, non-immigrants are not. I'll return to the solution to this problem, which I hope is imminent, in the context of our namecheck system.

The Namecheck System

Integral to visa processing is the namecheck system. CA is well aware of the importance of sharing and receiving critical intelligence and criminal data from intelligence and law enforcement agencies. In addition to ensuring that no visa is issued without a namecheck, we have worked hard over the past decade to deliver more information from other agencies to our visa officers via the namecheck system.

Our lookout database, the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS), contains about 5.7 million records on foreigners, most of which originate with the visa application process at our consulates and embassies overseas. A variety of federal agencies contribute lookouts to our system. INS has provided over one million records, and DEA about 330,000. Customs is working with us to provide 20,000 or more lookouts from its serious drug violator records by the end of this year. We in turn provide Customs, INS and other agencies using the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS) with approximately 500,000 lookout records through a real-time electronic link.

We also provide our officers, and the INS, with data on lost and stolen foreign passports to prevent the use of such passports by impostors.

TIPOFF and Visas Viper

In the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Bureau of Consular Affairs -- as part of the Department of State's border security program -- funded a border security and counterterrorism tool known as TIPOFF. It was developed, and is managed, by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), utilizing sensitive intelligence and law enforcement information from the CIA, NSA, FBI and our overseas posts concerning known or suspected terrorists. TIPOFF’s objective is to detect these individuals either as they apply for visas overseas, or as they attempt to pass through U.S., Canadian, and Australian border entry posts. (Data-sharing programs were implemented with Canada in 1997, and with Australia in 2000.)

The TIPOFF staff in INR screens all incoming intelligence reports, embassy cables and other sources of information for those documents containing the names and biographic data of known or suspected terrorists. Following strict procedures approved by the respective intelligence and law enforcement agencies, permission is obtained to declassify names, nationalities, passport numbers and dates of birth of suspected terrorists. This data is then entered into CLASS and the INS and Custom Service’s IBIS system. Consular officers overseas encounter "hits" based on TIPOFF data in the regular course of their work. The CLASS database contains over 48,000 such records. TIPOFF has passed approximately 23,000 records to INS and other inspection services at ports of entry via IBIS, which uses a higher standard of biographic data for its entries.

The Visas Viper program is an integral part of TIPOFF. The TIPOFF/Viper staff works in close coordination with CA to solicit information about suspected terrorists from overseas posts. This data is included in the TIPOFF database and watchlisted in CLASS and IBIS. A procedural adjunct to the Visas Viper program, called TIPPIX, incorporates terrorists’ photographs into the TIPOFF and IBIS databases.

TIPOFF performs the following important functions:

It helps preclude the inadvertent issuance of visas to terrorists whose names are known to intelligence and law enforcement agencies;

It warns embassies and consulates that certain applicants may pose a security risk;

It alerts intelligence and law enforcement agencies that a suspected terrorist is applying for a visa;

It provides a means for informed decisions to be made on whether to issue a visa for operational or other policy considerations, or deny the application;

It enables INS and Customs to detect suspected terrorists who may have obtained a visa prior to being watchlisted in CLASS, or who are attempting to enter the U.S. through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP);

And it provides operational opportunities at border entry points through use of “silent hits” or other handling codes.

We are also comparing new TIPOFF hits in the Consular Lookout and Support System with visa issuance information in the Consolidated Consular Database, to determine if a subject of derogatory information was issued a visa before the hit was created.

Security Advisory Opinions

We also address cases posing potential security threats using Security Advisory Opinion procedures. We have concluded a series of agreements with law enforcement and national security agencies concerning categories of individuals of concern. Such persons are the subjects of a cable prepared by a consular officer and disseminated electronically to all appropriate agencies for an in-depth clearance.

The Department of State has designated Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism. Visa applications by officials and diplomats of these countries for the most part must be submitted to the Visa Office for review and an advisory opinion as to ineligibility before a visa can be issued. (This requirement does not presently extend to diplomatic/official visa applicants from Syria.) Non-official visa applicants from these countries are also subject to a wide range of special clearance procedures based on their background, the nature of their proposed visit, and the type of visa they are seeking.

Based on agreements with the FBI, we also maintain a variety of special clearance procedures -- beyond the regular CLASS namecheck -- for numerous other nationalities, including Afghanistan. The reasons for these special clearance procedures vary, but include concerns related to espionage, technology transfer, economic sanctions, and human rights violations.

In addition to these nationality-specific clearance requirements, we universally require special clearance for applicants of any nationality who are the subject of the most serious CLASS lookouts. We similarly require special clearance for applicants whose planned travel to the United States raises concerns about unauthorized access to sensitive technologies, even if there is no lookout entry for the individual. Consular officers are also asked to submit for a security advisory opinion any other cases that they feel raise security concerns, regardless of namecheck results.

The Consular Consolidated Database

Our data-sharing efforts are not, however, limited to the namecheck system. We are now delivering more information to our visa officers via a globalized database of visa records. Beginning in 1996, thanks to the help of Congress with retained MRV fees, Consular Affairs undertook major modernization of our systems. By March 2001, all visa data collected abroad was being replicated to the Consular Consolidated Database. In May 2001, we made the Consular Consolidated Database available to all our visa officers abroad. The photo and details of visa issuance, once only available locally to the post taking action, are now available in real-time to all visa offices worldwide. Visas can be checked at any point in the issuance process against all issued and refused visas worldwide, and consular management in Washington now has access to up-to-the-minute information about visa and passport issuance around the world.

Data-Sharing with the INS and Other Federal Inspection Services

We are working to widen the flow of information to relevant Federal Inspection Services. We are mindful of the challenges that INS faces in inspecting millions of foreign visitors at ports of entry. We have a number of initiatives underway to share additional information with INS in order to improve border security. As I mentioned earlier, the Consolidated Consular Database allows us to make visa information, including digital non-immigrant visa photographs, immediately available both in Washington and at all consular sections worldwide. We want INS to be able to make good use of this data, in particular photos of each individual who has been issued a visa.

Since the mid-1990's, State and INS have had a cooperative program which has resulted in State forwarding to INS, for use at ports of entry, electronic data on 55% of all immigrant visa recipients. The two agencies have cooperated in exchanging information at all stages of the immigrant visa process, from approving petitions to issuing legal permanent residence cards. We are about to make certain software changes that should allow complete sharing of immigrant visa information with INS within the next year.

The Department is prepared to share all of its replicated non-immigrant visa files with INS as soon as the Service is ready to receive it. Towards that end, in July 2001, we deployed a pilot program to share limited non-immigrant visa data with INS inspectors at Newark and with the INS forensic document lab. The program was expanded to Miami in September, and INS plans to make the data available to all ports of entry over the next several months. We look forward to the time when we can share all of our replicated files with all INS ports of entry, as they will give INS inspectors near real-time access to data that will allow them to better detect fraud and facilitate legitimate travelers. In the meantime, INS inspectors have access to our electronic visa data via telephone contact with the Visa Office.

Looking Ahead: Improving and Extending our Systems

The Bureau of Consular Affairs has staff specifically dedicated to technical development to ensure we maintain state-of-the-art tools for adjudicating visas. The Consular Lookout and Support System is modern and extendible. Our namecheck system remains robust because we continue to upgrade it. We are committed and are actively working to expand datasharing with INS, other federal inspection services and law enforcement agencies.

A. Gaining Access to FBI NCIC III Data

We need access to FBI criminal record data (NCIC III) on aliens to assist consular officers in their adjudication of visa applications and have been seeking authority for such access for many years. We already screen our immigrant applicants using FBI information and want to do the same for non-immigrant applicants. We envision a system of index records on aliens (excluding all U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents) that is added directly to the CLASS lookout system and that will signal there may be derogatory FBI information on an applicant. I am grateful to Members of Congress that this legislation, which would also ensure INS access to such information, is included in the counter-terrorism measures now moving through Congress. Mr. Chairman, I also want to thank you, Senator Brownback, and others for introducing S1452, which would provide NCIC III access to us and INS.

B. Short-term improvements to Visa Systems

This winter we will introduce improved field backup namecheck systems. By summer 2002 we plan to deploy a "real time update" feature for these systems that will give every visa processing post a local back-up that closely approaches the abilities of the mainframe CLASS system.

Before the end of this year, we will modify our existing database of lost and stolen blank foreign passports to accommodate entries by Foreign Service posts of individual, foreign passports that are reported as lost or stolen. Lost and stolen passport data will continue to be shared with federal inspection agencies through IBIS.

Specific enhancements aimed at giving visa officers more detailed lookout information have been in the works over the past year. By spring 2002, we will deploy features in our nonimmigrant visa system that will increase the scope of data associated with our lookout entries. Using scanning, we will begin augmenting the lookouts with global, electronic access to refusal files (and photos) now kept at individual Foreign Service posts.

C. Facial Recognition

As I have said, Mr. Chairman, every visa application contains a photograph, which means we already capture a biometric indicator for every applicant. Accordingly, we have been investigating the use of emerging facial recognition technology in the consular business process.

Evaluations comparing non-immigrant visa photos at posts in India and Nigeria proved promising in identifying impostors presenting fraudulent applications. In late August, we launched a pilot at the Kentucky Consular Center for Diversity Visas aimed at detecting invalid applications from persons working around our procedures. We will soon test the capability of facial recognition software to compare a sample database of photographs of suspected terrorists to those of visa applicants. We seek to expand the pool of photographs available for this use through efforts with other USG agencies.

D. Document Security

We soon will complete field-testing a new, more secure non-immigrant visa.

Laboratory tests have shown that it is much more tamper-resistant than the current version. We will also complete design of a machine-readable, secure immigrant visa that will, in conjunction with the data-share program, virtually eliminate photo-substitution. We will provide our consulates with special secure ink with which to cancel visas, so that efforts to "wash" or "recycle" genuine visas will be much more difficult.

We are planning to develop within the Bureau of Consular Affairs an independent capacity to detect and counter fraudulent or counterfeit U.S. and foreign visas and passports by creating a new office built around a forensic document laboratory. This office also would coordinate all Bureau efforts to assess biometrics technologies.

E. Human Resources

Using MRV fees, the Department currently funds the salaries and benefits of 2,130 full-time positions. MRV funds will also be required to increase consular staffing worldwide, to address growing demands in the visa adjudication process. We are committed to an effective training program for consular employees, including an intensive one-week training course for consular field officers on namecheck systems and linguistic concepts.

Machine-Readable Visa Fees Provide the Means for Improvements

Mr. Chairman, all of these initiatives -- past, present and future -- have been made possible because of a very wise decision by Congress a few years ago to permit us to retain machine-readable visa (MRV) fees. Since 1994, we have spent every penny of these fees sensibly and judiciously. As I mentioned, the Bureau of Consular Affairs relies upon MRV fees to finance the salary and basic benefits of virtually all American employees who provide worldwide consular services as well as to make improvements to our systems. Permanent and uncapped MRV fees are essential to continuing our efforts to enhance the nation's Border Security Program. With this funding authority, we can ensure we have sufficient personnel to cover staffing and training gaps and to help meet peak season workloads. We can also adjust staffing to compensate for additional anticipated steps in the visa adjudication process and other changes to increase security.

This funding allowed us to modernize our consular systems, and some of our future proceeds will go into further system upgrades, such as the scanning of our refusal files to augment lookout information. Other major expenditures looming include establishing additional back-up capabilities for the sophisticated automated systems that support both CLASS and the Consolidated Consular Database.

The level of resources available to federal border agencies greatly affects our progress, particularly in interagency sharing of visa information. We must continue to work closely with other agencies on data-sharing to ensure full access to information for consular officers. We are anxious to provide visa data to federal inspection services and would like to see more rapid progress. Modernization of other agencies' systems -- including more modern protocols in data exchange and more secure, flexible connectivity -- is key to significant progress. We actively participate in the Border Agency Partnership (formerly IBIS), which aims to tackle these problems.


Mr. Chairman, we live in a free and open society. These characteristics, so precious to all Americans, make our country a magnet to those who seek greater political, economic and social opportunities, as well as a target for those who hate us and seek to do us harm. We must continue improving the security of our borders while keeping our hearts and our economy open to new people, ideas and markets. CA has been and will continue to be a full partner in the battle against terrorism. Although the freedom and openness we value so much make totally foolproof systems virtually impossible, I am confident that our current system is state-of-the-art and functions as it was designed. I am also confident that we are on the right track with our efforts to find new technologies and institute data-sharing arrangements with other agencies.

I close, Mr. Chairman, with the point I made at the outset of these remarks -- the effectiveness and success of our systems rely not only on the quantity, but also on the quality and timeliness of the information that goes into it.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the committee, for permitting me to share my thoughts with you today. I would now be pleased to answer any questions you have for me.

U.S. Government Website

September 11 Page

127 Wall Street, New Haven, CT 06511.