MARY A. RYAN
ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR CONSULAR AFFAIRS
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE
JUDICIARY SUBCOMMITTEE ON TECHNOLOGY, TERRORISM AND GOVERNMENT
UNITED STATES SENATE
TECHNOLOGY'S ROLE IN PREVENTING THE ENTRY OF TERRORISTS INTO
THE UNITED STATES
OCTOBER 12, 2001
Madam Chair 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, Madam Chair,
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, Madam Chair, 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.
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
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, Madame Chair, 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 has for some time been 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 will make
the data available to several other ports of entry soon. We look forward to
the day when we can share this information will all INS ports of entry, as it
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 has been introduced in both Houses
of Congress. We appreciate the support of Congress on this important legislation.
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 CLASS mainframe.
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
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, Madame Chair, 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
Madam Chair, 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.
Madam Chair, 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, Madam Chair, 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, Madam Chair 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.
Drafted: CA/VO/P Lisa Piascik/MSardinas
Cleared:CA/VO -- Catherine Barry (ok)
CA/P - Carolyn Huggins (ok)
CA/VO/L Stephen Fischel
CA/VO/F Linda Dohahue (subs)
CA/VO/F/S Martha Sardinas (ok)
CA/VO -- Tony Edson (ok)
CA/EX -- Frank Moss (ok)
CA/VO/EX - FTurley (ok)
CA/EX - LWollemborg(ok)
CA/EX/ES: BNg (ok)
INR/IC Jean Louis (info)
H - Michael Chang (subs)
L/CA - Catherine Brown (subs)
FMP -- James Millett (subs)
M -- Erin Rooney (subs)
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