If you’re issuing visas to terrorists, how do you avoid jail and escape a huge fine? Make sure you’ve been working for the CIA.

How The Middle East Was Lost

In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. Department of State had been working hand in hand with the Saudi Arabian government, the CIA, and its asset, Osama bin Laden, to recruit fighters for the war in Afghanistan against what was then the Soviet Union.  Future terrorists, recruited from all over the region as well as South Asia, were brought to Jeddah, principal city of the Hejaz, Saudi Arabia’s western province. But Jeddah, then the 5th largest visa-issuing post in the region, was not a State Department operation.  Of some 20 Americans working there in 1987-1989, I can say from personal experience as then-Chief of the Visa Section that only 3 people, including myself, did not work for the CIA or the NSA (National Security Agency, the organization charged with making and breaking codes and engaging in “signals intelligence”, i.e., listening to telephone and radio communications, whether public or private).

9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar obtained visas through the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Image: FBI/History Commons)

9/11 hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar obtained visas through the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Image: FBI/History Commons)

The low-lifes recruited and sent to Jeddah for tourist visas were to come to the United States for debriefings, rewards, or terrorist training in shooting things down and blowing things up.  They were not philosopher kings.  One was an unemployed Sudanese, in Jeddah as a refugee.  Others were Pakistanis who could not name the auto parts trade show they were supposedly attending or even identify the city where it was being held.  The CIA Base Chief once sought a visa for an Iranian rug merchant so he could visit Agency headquarters at Langley.

See No Evil

Anyone who complained that this was a violation of statute and regulation and should be punished to the full extent of the law (25 years in jail plus a crippling fine) was described by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) as someone with personality problems.  Neither DS nor the GAO (then the Government Accounting Office, Congress’s watchdog) had any interest in a real investigation of the visas for terrorists program, unsurprisingly because of CIA and Saudi involvement.  One congressional staffer asked me if I didn’t think we needed the CIA.  Former Senator Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) would not comment to me on what his committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was doing or would do about the Agency’s involvement in the visa process.

Break The Law, Reap The Rewards

The Agency was so deeply involved in the visa process at Jeddah that the man whose diplomatic cover was Consul General got his own visa plate and sometimes sat at the window, granting permission to applicants to enter the United States.  The Base Chief demanded and got permission to review all applications I had approved before visas could be issued. Of course there was a spook (i.e., CIA Clandestine Service Officer) who worked “part-time” in the visa section. On occasion, he would say “Mike, let me handle this next guy in line, he’s one of mine.”  The part-timer is now an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Obama Administration.  My predecessor, while mistakenly regarded as a “real” diplomat, somehow skated past her service in the Defense Intelligence Agency and omitted discussion of her Christopher Medallion, an apparently secret award from Langley which appears nowhere on their website or on Google.  Now a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, she lives in Potomac, Md.  (At Jeddah, she used to give the names of people who had annoyed her to the IRS as possible tax-evaders.)

Like Cockroaches, They’re Everywhere

To those knowledgeable about foreign affairs, it is no real surprise that the spooks have such influence at State, particularly in the visa program.  According to one former Station Chief, CIA people average one-third of U.S. diplomatic and consular personnel.  I’m inclined to think it’s higher.  After all, in Berlin and Riyadh, the CIA Station has at least one entire floor all to itself.  Moreover, it routinely assigns its Clandestine Service Officers to visa, commercial, political, and economic sections all over the world, such as those at the St. Petersburg and Poznan consulates, as well as at embassies, including those in Poland, Tanzania, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.

One retired consular officer told me that the CIA in Kuala Lumpur would often ask to look through his visa application files.  Philip B. F. Agee, a former Clandestine Service Officer, once told me years ago that the CIA had its own man in the consular section in Mexico City, while at other posts, CIA secretaries would simply troll States’ visa application files. Former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officer Celerino Castillo in a telephone conversation said that the Jeddah visa hanky panky was typical.  Calling it fraud on a massive scale, he asserted that the CIA would recruit local State Department staff to surreptitiously handle visa matters for Clandestine Service Officers (for which they charged a fee “under the table”).  In the six years he spent in Guatemala City, Castillo noted that the CIA worked with travel agencies handling tour groups, using them as cover to bring their operatives, posing as simple travelers, into the U.S.  This was apparently the guiding principal behind Jeddah’s Visa Express Program that got 15 of the 19 alleged 911 hijackers into the United States.

What to do?

The simple but unworkable solution would be to abolish the Clandestine Service.  (The CIA can’t do its job, but is adept at managing the U.S. news media and Congress so that their budget is never cut but always increased—to fight Communists, terrorists, or other imaginary enemies.)  A better way would be to keep them out of the State Department entirely, giving them tourist or official passports for use while conducting their nefarious activities abroad.  If the spooks want to think of themselves as a secret intelligence service beholden to no one and no thing, then make them that way.  Let them hide in plain sight, “under non-official cover”, as James A. Everett did during his career operating inside U.S. firms in Scandinavia and elsewhere.  (Cf. The Making and Breaking of An American Spy, by James A. Everett.)