Great Seal of the United States National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

Seventh public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

Statement of Mary A. Ryan to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon The United States
January 26, 2004

Mr. Chairman and Commissioners:

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to describe the role of the Bureau of Consular Affairs of the Department of State in our country’s border security program. My remarks will cover the period from May 1993 until July 2002, the years I was the Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs (CA). I retired from the Department of State in September 2002 after 36-½ years as a career Foreign Service Officer during which I served eight Presidents: Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush.

My responsibilities as Assistant Secretary can be grouped under three general headings: American Citizen Services, Visa Services and Passport Services. I will begin by discussing Visa Services which I believe are of the most interest to the Commission.

When I assumed my duties as Assistant Secretary, very few posts had on-line name checking capability. In fact, most were still using microfiche to check the look-out system.

The Congress, recognizing this as a serious vulnerability, authorized the Department in FY-94 to charge a fee for machine-readable visa applications (MRV) and for the first time in the Department’s history, to keep that money. The Congress ordered CA to “automate the world.” When we were reliant on appropriated funds we were able to automate about 6 posts a year. With MRV fee authorization and thanks to a very talented and dedicated consular systems staff, we automated the world in 18 months.

During my tenure as Assistant Secretary, the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) was continually engaged in efforts to design, deploy and improve the systems that help flag for consular officers terrorists and criminals among visa applicants. We worked hard to make ours a state of the art system. We were constantly seeking new technologies to strengthen our capabilities. However, if there is a single point that I want to leave with the Commission, it is that any name check system is and will be only as good as the information that is in it. One lesson of 9/11 is that CA had no information on any of the 19 terrorists.

Visa Processing

I will focus on non-immigrant visa processing and explain briefly how applicants are processed in order to convey a sense of the environment in which our systems operate. Applicants for non-immigrant visas (NIV) submit a written application with a passport and photos for adjudication by a commissioned consular officer or other designated US citizen. Locally engaged staff assists in visa processing but are not authorized to approve and issue visas. The process is the same whether the applicant applies in person, applies by mail, or submits his/her application through a travel agent.

Consular officers evaluate applications by looking at the full range of criteria established by US immigration law. They may interview the applicant in person or they may review the documentation submitted without an interview. In both cases, however, the consular officer who decides on the application has a series of concerns to satisfy before s/he decides whether or not to grant the visa: does the applicant present a threat to the US, is s/he coming to the US for a legitimate purpose, and will the person likely return to his or her home country after accomplishing the purpose of the visit within the time limits the applicant’s admission confers. 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 (INA), including terrorism, drug trafficking and alien smuggling. Consular officers use a combination of experience, knowledge of local economic, political and cultural conditions, and common sense to evaluate applications. If there are indications of fraud or deception, an investigation may be conducted using consular anti-fraud resources.

Visa applications are then processed using CA’s automated system. Data entry automatically prompts a name check through the Department of State’s centralized lookout system (Consular Lookout and Support Systems or CLASS). A consular officer must review all “hits” before the case can be formally approved for printing the visa. There is no override to this feature. All names are run through CLASS and it is not possible to print a visa unless the name check has been completed and reviewed by a consular officer.

The huge number of non-immigrant visa applications meant that consular officers had to make decisions in individual cases very rapidly. To assist them in doing so, the name check technology provides results in real time. We used linguistic experts to make our search criteria for “hits” as precise as possible. We instituted sophisticated Arabic and Russian/Slavic algorithms to identify names regardless of transliteration variations.

Once approved, a visa containing numerous security features and a digitized photo is placed in the alien’s passport. The maximum period of validity is ten years, and permits multiple entries to the US. The validities of different types of NIVs are determined on the basis of reciprocity with each foreign government. I should point out here though, that the period of validity does not determine the period an alien may remain in the US. A visa permits an alien to apply for entry into the US, but only the Immigration Service may authorize entry and they determine the alien’s length of stay.

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

The Name Check System

Integral to visa processing is the name check system. In addition to ensuring that no visa is issued without a name check, CA worked hard to deliver more information from other agencies to our visa officers in the field via the name check system.

In 2001, the lookout database CLASS, contained about 5.7 million records on foreigners, most of which originated with the visa application process at our consulates and embassies abroad. A variety of federal agencies contribute lookouts to our system. INS provided over one million records, and DEA about 330,000. Customs was working with us at that time to provide 20,000 or more lookouts from its serious drug violator records. We, in turn, provided Customs, INS and other agencies using the Interagency Border Inspection System (IBIS) with approximately 500,000 lookout records of NIV refusals through a real-time electronic link.

We also developed a database of lost and stolen foreign passports and provided that information to consular officers and INS to prevent the use of such passports by imposters.

TIPOFF and Visas Viper

Thanks again to MRV fees, CA funded a border security and counter-terrorism tool known as TIPOFF. It was developed in 1987 and managed by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in my tenure in CA. What it did when I was in CA was to utilize sensitive and law enforcement information from the CIA, FBI, NSA and overseas posts concerning known or suspected terrorists. TIPOFF’s objective was to detect these individuals either as they apply for visas overseas or as they attempt to pass through US, Canadian or Australian border entry posts. (Data sharing programs were implemented with Canada in 1997 and with Australia in 2000.)

The TIPOFF staff reviewed all incoming intelligence reports, overseas posts’ 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 was sought to declassify names, nationalities, passport numbers and dates of birth of suspected terrorists. This data was entered into CLASS and INS’ and Customs’ IBIS system. The CLASS database contained over 48,000 such records in 2001.

Visas Viper is an integral part of TIPOFF. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies had been reluctant to share terrorist information at the posts where it had been developed. My position was that I didn’t care how we got the information as long as we did get it. The agencies professed themselves comfortable with providing it through INR and TIPOFF. Because we were informed that information was being passed to INR, I believed that we were getting all the information they had to protect the country. However, as I have said, even a state of the art system is only as good as the intelligence it has in it. And, as noted, there was no information given to TIPOFF, or to CA or to INS on any of the 19 terrorists before they were issued visas.

The TIPOFF function was important to border security and was designed to:

  • Preclude inadvertent issuance of visas to applicants whose names were known to intelligence and law enforcement agencies;
  • Warn our embassies and consulates that certain applicants may pose a security risk;
  • Alert intelligence and law enforcement agencies that a suspected terrorist was applying for a visa;
  • Provide a means for informed decisions to be made on whether to issue a visa for operational or other policy considerations, or to deny the applications;
  • Enable Customs and INS to detect suspected terrorists who may have obtained a visa prior to being watch listed in CLASS, or who might attempt to enter the US through the Visa Waiver Program;
  • Provide operational opportunities at border entry points through the use of silent hits or other handling codes;
  • We also were comparing new TIPOFF hits in CLASS with visa issuance to determine if the subject of derogatory information was issued a visa before we had this information.

American Citizen Services

I believe that government has no more important responsibility than the protection of its citizens. I took that responsibility very seriously as Assistant Secretary. I certainly regarded American Citizen Services, with all that name implies, as my chief duty. I read the daily intelligence reports looking for any indication of situations abroad that had the potential to put Americans overseas at risk. If the intelligence had any such information, CA immediately began to work with other bureaus in the Department to make that information available to Americans traveling or living abroad. CA has a very elaborate system to provide information to Americans considering a trip abroad or who live abroad. It consists of Consular Information Sheets on every country in the world, augmented as needed by Public Announcements and Travel Warnings. These are all designed to give Americans the information they need for their safety when outside the US or considering a trip overseas. In 2000-1, CA issued 75 Travel Warnings, over 100 Public Announcements and 5 World Wide Cautions. Some of these were multiples for the same country as the situation there improved or worsened.

Consular Officers provide a variety of other services to Americans, including welfare and whereabouts checks on Americans abroad, assistance in cases of illness, death and arrest abroad. They provide dietary and medical assistance to prisoners and the destitute. They repatriate the destitute and help to evacuate American citizens from dangerous places to safe havens either in another country or back to the US. The Bureau of Consular Affairs also has responsibilities with respect to the notification, information and assistance to family members of victims of disasters (e.g., plane crashes) and violent crimes abroad.

Children’s Issues

The Office of Children’s Issues within CA was created in the summer of 1993 to reflect the increasing importance of these issues to consular work. CA and consular officers play a significant role in facilitating and regulating the adoption of foreign children by US citizens, primarily through the process of adjudicating visa applications for such adopted children. The Department’s role was increasing shortly before I left CA because of The Hague Convention on International Child Adoption and the Inter-country Adoption Act. The Department and, more specifically CA, became the Central Authority for such adoptions. One of CA’s primary responsibilities in international adoptions is to ensure that American parents are adopting children who are legally adoptable in the country of origin. In other words, the adoption must be free of fraud and free of baby stealing and selling. In 2001, INS placed a moratorium on adoptions from Cambodia because the US Government could not attest to adoptions there being without fraud.

Another vital CA responsibility is in the area of international parental-child abduction. CA has the lead role in implementing US obligations under The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. CA performs some of the convention functions through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children which receives a Justice Department grant. If a country is a signatory to The Hague Convention, it is generally possible, once the child is found, to effect the return of the child to the left-behind parent in the US. There are, however, glaring exceptions to this. There are cases where the American parent did everything correctly under The Hague Convention and still doesn’t have his child. In cases where the child is taken to a non-Hague country, it is extremely difficult, and impossible in many cases, to have the child returned to the left-behind parent in the US. International Parental-Child Abductions are among the most tragic and emotional of all the work CA does.

Visa and Passport Fraud Prevention

Fraud is a never-ending concern of consular officers and CA. It is a constant battle to keep ahead of the “bad guys.” Document security is one of the keys to thwarting fraud. Improvements were always being made and during my time in CA, we worked hard to develop a new, more tamper-resistant NIV called the Lincoln Visa. It had many built-in security features. We also were in the process of redesigning the immigrant visa to virtually eliminate photo substitution, as well as being in the planning stages of providing posts abroad with a special secure ink with which to cancel visas, so that efforts to “recycle” genuine visas will be much more difficult. The office of Fraud Prevention Programs (FPP) in CA constantly works to identify fraudulent practices. It advises the field on fraud trends and produces the Fraud Digest to assist consular officers in detecting fraud. FPP had a very good working relationship with INS’ Forensic Document Laboratory when I was in CA.

Passport Services

Demand for US passports from 1993 to 2002 grew from 3.5 million to over 7 million. To cope with this additional workload, we built and opened a mega-passport center in Charleston, SC on the former Navy base there. We were also alert to passport fraud and purchased technology that eliminated the fraud of choice in the US passport: photo substitution. We now photodigitize passport photographs directly onto the data page instead of gluing the photograph into the passport. We also issue only emergency passports overseas, so that the vast majority of passports issued today are the photodigitized and much more secure version.

Resource Issues

I would like now to give you an idea of the difficulties CA faced during my tenure in trying to keep up with the ever-expanding workload. Non-immigrant visa applications rose from 7 million in 1993 to 10 million in 2001. Immigrant visa adjudication stayed at about 600,000 during my tenure. Passport demand, as I mentioned, grew from 3.5 million to over 7 million in the same time frame.

State Department budgets in the 1990s were inadequate for this workload. Because of the lack of funding, Department senior management determined not to hire to attrition and to reduce significantly promotions in the Foreign Service (FS). These decisions had an immediate and very negative effect on consular personnel and on consular work.

In years past, the Department had always maintained junior officer (JO) intake at roughly 200 a year. In the mid-‘90s because of the budget shortfalls, entering classes numbered 130, 110 and 90. Because most of the entry-level jobs in the FS are consular, our work was heavily impacted. A huge hole was created at the bottom of the service, causing CA to use FS specialists, and Civil Service personnel on “excursion” tours to augment staffing, as well as hiring FS spouses to do a great deal of the entry level work. In addition, at a time when the visa workload in particular was increasing, the lack of promotions meant that 0-1s, OCs and MCs (roughly equivalent to colonels, one and two-star generals) were forced out of the Service, creating shortages in top-level consular management at the same time there were so few JOs.

By 1997, MRV fees were sufficiently high to allow CA to fund consular positions in regional bureaus abroad to increase officer staffing in consular sections. CA is a completely domestic bureau. It controls no overseas positions. Consular positions overseas are under the control of the regional bureau in which the embassy or consulate is located.

The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) mandated the issuance of all new and the re-issuance of all existing border crossing cards in Mexico within 18 months. CA and INS divided this work, for which no additional funding was authorized. CA assumed the responsibility for issuing the cards. We opened posts and expanded others in Mexico to handle the increased workload. The cards contain a digitized photograph and a fingerprint. We issued over 5 million of these cards, although we had to request an extension of the time allowed to do so. INS was to have purchased card readers and to read all the cards.

In order to meet existing and new (border crossing cards, for example) demands for consular services, CA developed a program to get the work done. The motto in the Department in the 1990s was “do more with less” to the extent that it seemed to me we were expected to do everything with nothing. One of the policies we adopted at that time was “interview by exception.” By this we meant that posts should interview only problem cases. For example, if a post’s issuance rate was 65%, they should not be interviewing 100% of the applicants. They should be interviewing the 35% problematic cases.

We also developed what we called a Travel Agent Referral Program (TARP), whereby carefully vetted travel agencies could submit applications for their clients who generally would not be interviewed. Variations of this program existed well before my time in CA. Validation studies were done to ensure that the customers did return from visits to the US. Agencies that violated any of the rules or whose customers overstayed in the US were dropped from the program.

The US embassy in Saudi Arabia developed such a program in 2001 (one of approximately 30 posts at the time with similar programs including, for example, Santiago, Istanbul, Seoul and Tel Aviv). It was incorrectly alleged that the travel agents were deputized to make visa decisions when they obviously had a financial interest in seeing that the visa was issued to people to whom they were selling travel services. Nothing could be further than the truth. We used such programs in countries with low rates of visa refusals or where applicants had to travel long distances from their homes to our embassies and consulates. In every case, the applications were checked through CLASS for any indication of a problem, the consular officer was free to require the applicant to come in for an interview, and the policy was not to guarantee issuance. Whether the applications arrive by mail, are brought in person, or are delivered by a third party has no impact on the ability of the consular officer to assess the bona fides of the applicant. At the time the visas were issued to the hijackers, we had no information whatsoever on any of them. Saudi Arabia was a country with a low refusal rate when the program was instituted. Such programs allowed a couple of thousand consular officers to adjudicate over 9 million non-immigrant visas a year.

Much has also been made about the lack of an interview of these men. Waiving a personal interview in a low refusal country was standard procedure until recently and is the underlying logic of the Visa Waiver Program through which about 40% of our international visitors enter the US. In Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s and 2000-1, visa refusals were very low for Saudi citizens with nearly all of the refusals based on known ineligibilities revealed by checking our automated system. We believed at the time that our scarce resources were better spent interviewing third country nationals there who were refused in high numbers.

Enhancements to the Visa Application Process since September 11, 2001 until my departure in July 2002:

  • Provided access to the Consolidated Consular Data Base (CCD) to INS inspectors at POEs. The CCD provides detailed information on all visas issued, including photographs of non-immigrant visa applicants. INS was able to accept this information in October 2001.
  • By June 2002, we incorporated approximately 8 million records from the FBI’s National Crime Information Center into CLASS. We had long sought this information without success and only obtained it through passage of the Patriot Act.
  • Received into CLASS a threefold increase in name check records from the intelligence community through TIPOFF.
  • Began automated cross-checking of new derogatory information obtained from NCIC and intelligence agencies concerning terrorists or suspected terrorists (including TIPOFF entries) against records of previously issued visas in order to revoke any existing valid visas issued prior to our getting that information.
  • In Fall 2001, began storing refusal files for posts at risk (or with space problems) at the Kentucky Consular Center.
  • In March 2002, pilot-tested the new tamper-resistant Lincoln NIV visa.
  • In March 2002, initiated an Advanced Name Checking Techniques course at FSI. Hundreds of consular officers have received this training.
  • In March 2002, amended regulations to close a loophole and limit the ability of persons with expired visas to reenter the US from contiguous territory (Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean). This change removed from the automatic revalidation provision those persons who apply for a new visa and are refused in Canada and Mexico and all nationals of countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism regardless of whether they apply for a visa.
  • Piloted data share with Social Security Administration to facilitate enumeration of new immigrants.
  • Initiated the Alternate Processing Center (APC) for the CLASS name check system located in the Kentucky Consular Center hundreds of miles from DC. The APC provides additional name check production resources and load sharing capability with the primary computer complex in the Washington DC area. APC also improved Class survivability.
  • Created two new forms for NIVs: DS-157 (November 2001) required of all men between 16 and 45 from every country in the world; and the DS-158 (July 2002) required of all applicants for student visas. The DS-157 is used to identify applicants who require a security advisory opinion from Washington agencies.
  • In April 2002, began requiring photo-capture of all refused NIV applicants.
  • Revised photo standards for NIV applicants to improve the quality of data for facial recognition and other purposes.
  • In Spring 2002, provided all posts with software and scanners to allow scanning of supportive evidence in serious referrals. This evidence is thus available in its electronic format to all consular operations and DHS border inspection offices.
  • Proposed elimination of crew list visas and establishment of a requirement that seamen obtain individual visas.
  • Began the process to eliminate the waiver of visas for permanent residents of Canada and Bermuda.


I wish that there had been a perfect way of detecting terrorists as they applied for visas, but the only tools at our disposal were the ones I have mentioned. They combined careful data collection and sharing with powerful information technology that put the data at the fingertips of consular officer in the field in real time. They were reinforced by a system of multiple checks at our ports of entry and within the United States. They obviously were not infallible, but they were the best we had at that time and I believe that they will get better every day as we learn more about the threats we face. I think that CA and consular officers in the field did all we could using the information and the tools we had available prior to September 11, 2001. However, as we know now, we lacked critical information.

As we all know, the United States is a free and open society. We cannot close our borders completely to business people, students, and tourists. Most people who seek to come here have only good intentions. Terrorists and criminals are a tiny, but lethal, minority. The government and the American people must decide on the level of risk that is acceptable because it is impossible to guarantee total protection. I continue to believe that exposure to American values, ideals and principles is a good thing for people around the world and that the world gains a great deal from American openness. I hope that this Commission will be able to suggest further improvements across a range of intelligence, law enforcement and immigration and border security agencies, which will maintain that openness, while seeking to ensure that our country and our citizens never suffer again what we suffered on September 11, 2001.

Thank you.

Mary A. Ryan was the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs from May 1993 until July 2002.

Ambassador Ryan, who entered the Foreign Service in 1966, began her career as Rotational Officer in Naples. She then served as Personnel Officer in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and as Consular Officer at the Consulate General in Monterrey, Mexico. Her succeeding tours of duty were as Roving Administrative Officer for Africa and as Post Management Officer in the Bureau of African Affairs in Washington. She went on to become Career Development Officer in the Bureau of Personnel also in Washington. Returning overseas in 1980, she served as Administrative Counselor at U.S. embassies in Abidjan and Khartoum. Ambassador Ryan has also been a Foreign Service Inspector and the Executive Director of the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs. She was Executive Assistant to the Under Secretary for Management for three years immediately before being assigned as Ambassador to Swaziland in 1988.

Returning to Washington in 1990, Ambassador Ryan served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Assigned as Director of the Kuwait Task Force following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, she served in this capacity until her assignment to the United Nations Special Commission on the Elimination of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, as the Commission’s first Director of Operations. She returned from New York to take up her duties as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs in the fall of 1991.

Ambassador Ryan was the recipient of the Presidential Distinguished Service Award in 1998 and 1992, the Arnold L. Raphel Award in 1996 and the Award for Outstanding Public Service in 2001. She was promoted to Career Minister in 1992 and Career Ambassador in 1999.

She retired from the department of State in September 2002.

Ambassador Ryan was born in New York City and has a BA and MA from St. John’s University in New York.

Current News

The Commission has released its final report. [more]

The Chair and Vice Chair have released a statement regarding the Commission's closing. [more]

The Commission closed August 21, 2004. [more]

Commission Members

Thomas H. Kean

Lee H. Hamilton
Vice Chair

Richard Ben-Veniste
Fred F. Fielding
Jamie S. Gorelick
Slade Gorton
Bob Kerrey
John F. Lehman
Timothy J. Roemer
James R. Thompson

Commission Staff

Philip D. Zelikow
Executive Director

Chris Kojm
Deputy Executive Director

Daniel Marcus
General Counsel