House Research Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) summarized many of the views of his colleagues on the House Science Committee at a hearing last week on the relatively new security procedures surrounding the issuance of visas to visiting students and scholars. Said Smith, "This hearing is not a forum to pit the interests of science against the interests of security. Rather, our task is to eliminate bureaucratic inefficiencies in the existing security system that compromise our nation's ability to attract promising scientists and engineers."
While no one on the Science Committee said that they were satisfied that the federal government has attained a completely trouble-free adjudication process, no one suggested a return to the pre September 11, 2001 process. Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R- NY) also sits on the House Intelligence Committee that had recently been briefed by CIA Director George Tenet. Boehlert spoke of the "real and insidious threats facing our nation," and said Tenet's testimony regarding the risk that terrorism poses was "not very comforting."
The Science Committee held a hearing on visa processing a year ago at which Boehlert said "the current system in untenable" (see /fyi/2003/056.html.) Complaints about delays had caught the attention of senior administration policy makers, with OSTP Director John Marburger devoting a sizeable portion of his address at an AAAS colloquium to the topic. At last week's hearing Boehlert's criticism was lessened, as he now said, "we have some real problems with our current visa processes."
Visa security reviews are to reduce the possibility that foreign visitors are exposed to technologies that could then be used against the United States. In response to widespread complaints, the Science Committee asked the General Accounting Office to review the visa process. After looking at a sample of visa actions, the GAO found that it took an average of 67 days for a security check to be performed and for the State Department to notify the consular office. Visa processing can take considerably longer for citizens of China, India and Russia (see http://www.gao.gov/ under GAO reports "published February 25, 2004.") Senior administration officials from the Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation testified about their efforts to reduce adjudication time. The State Department has invested more than $1 million to improve the performance of its computer systems. The FBI is working to move from its current system of paper record-keeping at numerous locations around the world. The Department of Homeland Security is developing policies to review the operation of the visa processing system.
The on-going administrative efforts of these government departments and agencies seem to have been accepted by most committee members. While recognizing that the system must improve, committee members seemed to agree with Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) who, while criticizing bureaucratic delays, said "always err on the side of security." "We need to find that place where the need to protect America's homeland security interests is balanced against the well- being of the nation's science and technology enterprise," Gordon said. As Boehlert concluded in his opening remarks, "This is very, very difficult."