Issuing Visas to Watchlisted Travelers: Not the Greatest Idea!
Now that we’ve stripped away the mistaken outrage, here’s cause for real alarm. CBS finds that the State Department twice failed to do something about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s visa to enter the U.S. after his name appeared on a terror watchlist.
CBS is presumably working to elaborate on the piece now, because there isn’t much detail about why this occurred. And it appears that Abdulmutallab’s visa was issued before he was on any such list. I’m not sure what the procedures are for revoking a visa post-issuance — whether it’s possible; or whether doing so could complicate the problem by potentially letting a suspect know he’s being watched. I suppose we’ll learn more when next month’s congressional hearings into Northwest Airlines Flight 253 proceed.
But until then, Matthew Yglesias makes a good point building off Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s Sunday-show comments that there are way more people on the watchlist Abdulmutallab was on than there are government agents who can track every pre-probable cause basis for suspicion:
Even if you want to restrict your view to one billion Muslims, the math is the same. Consequently, tips, leads and the like are overwhelmingly going to be pointing to innocent people. You end up with a system that’s overwhelmed and paralyzed. If there were hundreds of thousands of al-Qaeda operatives trying to board planes every year, we’d catch lots of them. But we’re essentially looking for needles in haystacks.
There’s clearly a common-sense understanding of how the watchlist system — and, I suppose, the visa system — failed in allowing Abdulmutallab to board his plane. But it’s not immediately clear to me what the fix is.