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Federal agency calls for improved visa screenings of Saudis

Says workers sent to kingdom were underqualified

WASHINGTON -- The government has assigned unqualified employees to Saudi Arabia, where they are supposed to ensure that terrorists do not get US visas, a federal watchdog reported yesterday.

Fifteen of the 19 men who hijacked planes on Sept. 11, 2001, were from Saudi Arabia. When Congress created the Homeland Security Department, lawmakers ordered security officers assigned to the kingdom to screen visa applicants for terrorist connections.

The department's inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin, said that nine of the 10 temporary employees sent to Riyadh and Jeddah neither spoke nor read Arabic, the language in which many documents they review are written and the sole language spoken by many of the applicants.

''The visa security officer program is not living up to its potential," Ervin told the House Government Reform Committee.

One employee had never worked outside the United States and did not know how an embassy functioned, the report said. A second worker was unfamiliar with the process of issuing a visa.

Ervin said the workers need training in law enforcement, intelligence, detecting document fraud, interviewing techniques, and local language and customs.

He acknowledged that Congress gave Homeland Security no money to pay for the positions and that it may have set unrealistic deadlines for setting up the program.

The department's assistant secretary, Stewart Verdery, agreed that trained, full-time employees should be sent to other countries to review visas.

He said the department had requested $10 million to fund the program next year.

Officers are being trained and job descriptions are being drawn up, he said.

Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, Democrat of Maryland, said the program was important but destined for failure.

''We're woefully inadequate as far as personnel is concerned, as far as training is concerned," he said.

Ervin also said that thousands of visa applications submitted from Saudi Arabia before Sept. 11, 2001, were never reviewed by law enforcement or intelligence agencies.

Ervin pointed out that examination of those applications might identify young Saudi males with links to the Sept. 11 terrorists.

He recommended that the Homeland Security Department decide if it is worth the time and money to comb through the old visa applications.

''We're interested in the suggestion," Verdery said.

Verdery said it may be difficult to review all the applications because of technological limitations and the possibility that too many people would be wrongly flagged as connected to terrorists.

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