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State Department, for All Practical Purposes, Couldn’t Have Revoked Abdulmutallab’s Visa

In his press briefing yesterday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly took a beating over the fact that department bureaucrats didn’t revoke Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s visa to enter the United States. Kelly, in something of a defensive crouch, said that it was the responsibility of an interagency effort run by the National Counterterrorism Center to order the department to revoke the visa.

I’ve contacted NCTC to solicit a response, but no luck yet. In the meantime, I’ve talked to people who’ve directly processed foreigners’ visas. Long story short: It’s even harder for State to revoke a visa than Kelly made it sound.

First things first. Like Kelly said, State consular officers need to receive affirmative word from the interagency process that someone is a terror suspect or other security risk before it can revoke a visa on those grounds. Where State does have grounds to revoke a visa unilaterally is if officers catch visa recipients in a lie or violation, such as overstaying a visa’s duration. In those cases, which typically occur when someone reapplies for a visa, officers would have to present the recipient with evidence for why they were revoking his or her visa. Consular officers can tap into the so-called TIDE database of 550,000 names of people who the intelligence community suspects might cause the U.S. harm. But that occurs, typically, when an officer is issuing a visa in the first place. Officers don’t get pinged every time someone gets added to TIDE.

Taken together, all that means in practice that State Department officers were not going to revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa. That visa was issued in June 2008, long before anyone had any suspicions about him, and good until June 2010. Making matters more complicated, Abdulmutallab got his visa in London, but it was U.S. embassy officials in Abuja who learned about the threat he posed after his father warned them in November. They entered him into TIDE. The issuing consular office might very well not have known about it. Absent a determination from NCTC that didn’t occur, no one in the State Department was going to yank the visa. And if some clever consular officers decided to skirt the rules, they would still have to alert Abdulmutallab to the revocation — and hope they didn’t tip him off to the fact that U.S. authorities were monitoring him.

I don’t know exactly what the procedure is for the State Department to have known that the U.K. actually denied him a visa in May. Given that Abdulmutallab wasn’t a U.S. citizen, there may not have been a procedure mandating notification. The U.K. didn’t turn him down for terrorism suspicions; the Brits turned him down because his academic pretext for staying in Britain was dubious.

None of this should be interpreted as an argument for the merits of the current system. It’s just an explanation of how the system currently works, and one that underscores the difficulty of changing it.

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