The State Department continues to hide behind “visa confidentiality,” refusing to explain how Egyptian lawmaker Hani Nour Eldin, who is a member of a terrorist organization, got into the White House and State Department for high-level meetings. The excuse, however, is a spurious one. In both the Times Square bomber and Christmas bomber cases, administration officials discussed the visa process. In particular, there was extensive discussion in the case of the 2009 Christmas attempt to blow up an airliner heading for the United States. NPR, for example, interviewed Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, who gave a painstaking account of how would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was repeatedly issued visas.
But in the case of the hugely embarrassing incident first reported by Eli Lake, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland continued to fence with reporters at the daily press briefing on Tuesday. There was this exchange:
QUESTION: Yesterday, as you will recall, we had a long back and forth about the visa issued to Mr. Al-Din, the self-proclaimed member of Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. Do you now have any greater clarity as to how he came to be issued a visa and whether any U.S. laws were broken in his being issued a visa, and finally on whether there are any criminal or administrative inquiries into whether laws may have been broken here?
MS. NULAND: Well, we pushed a little harder. I’ve got a little bit more for you, but we are still somewhat constrained given the confidentiality of visa cases. On your last two questions I don’t have any evidence of U.S. laws being broken or a requirement for criminal follow-up.
Based on the background checks that were conducted as part of his visa application and other additional information that has come to light since that time, we neither had then nor do we have now any reason to believe that this particular individual, who at the time of his application was a member of parliament, would pose a threat to the United States. So after careful review, we concluded that the appropriate procedures were followed, including a review of the claimed affiliations. So --
QUESTION: Isn’t the membership in an FTO in and of itself by U.S. law grounds for their said person’s inadmissibility to the United States?
MS. NULAND: In and of itself it is grounds for inadmissibility. However, there are also waiver procedures when it is in the U.S. national interest. I’m not going to get into the specifics of how this case was handled for all the confidentiality reasons. But as a general matter, yes, if you are a member of an FTO, you are excluded unless your admission is waived.
QUESTION: So what you are suggesting is that if you had known then all of what you know now, you could or you would have waived the law because he does not constitute, in your judgment, a threat to the United States?
MS. NULAND: I’m not speaking at all to how his particular visa was processed except to say that we didn’t then and we don’t now see a threat from this person having been in the United States.
QUESTION: You’re leaving dangling the idea that he would have gotten a waiver. Are you not trying to make that point?
MS. NULAND: I am trying to protect the privacy of the visa process and not go any further with regard to the specifics of this case.
QUESTION: So --
MS. NULAND: You can draw whatever conclusions you’d like.
QUESTION: So you will not be revoking his visa, even symbolically, now that he has left the country?
MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t have anything further for you on that one either.
QUESTION: Did you know of his self-professed membership in the organization when he was granted the visa?
MS. NULAND: Beyond saying that neither at the time he applied nor since have we had reason to think he was a threat to the United States, I’m not going to give you – get into any specifics of the case.
QUESTION: And that means – is he able to come back to the States?
MS. NULAND: Again, all visa processing is confidential, so that would be a subject of confidentiality in his application.
QUESTION: Victoria, I’m --
MS. NULAND: Yeah. Still?
QUESTION: Have there been any – as a result of --
QUESTION: Just one more on this? Forgive me. Just related to this. Thank you. Are you trying to (a) tighten your visa procedures so that you have a better – I’m not talking about his case, but any other cases so that you have a better sense of who may be applying to come to the United States, particularly from Egypt; and (b) are you trying to look at the Egyptian – now currently Egyptian politicians, or at least those who may have been elected before the parliament was dissolved, to make sure that your current views on who is and isn’t admissible are consistent with your current understanding of their positions? In other words, is there some kind of an effort by the U.S. Government to go back and take a look at people, some of whom may have been deemed ne’er-do-wells by the Mubarak regime, to make sure that you have a current view on whether they are or are not admissible? Or are you just going to deal with this kind of ad hoc if and when it comes up?
MS. NULAND: As a general matter, we have confidence in our visa procedures, in our ability to apply U.S. law, in our ability to vet and understand who applicants are. But as we’ve been saying all along, it’s a new day in Egypt, it’s a new day in a lot of countries across the Middle East and North Africa, so new political personalities are coming to light. We’re learning more about all of them every day. And we have more folks who want to come here, want to know us, want to learn about the United States, want to develop relationships with us. We have the same interests with regard to them. So we are obviously going to have to continue to improve our understanding of who’s who and make those kinds of outreaches that we are doing, and that’s why so many of those embassies and the programs that we are support are so busy as these countries change.
The State Department owes the public and Congress a straight answer. A spokesman for House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.), who sent a letter demanding a explanation of the incident, tells Right Turn, “We have not heard anything back.”
Richard Grenell, a former spokesman for four U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, e-mails me: “They are trying to spin now that they are allowed to grant waivers in ‘special cases’ and so this isn’t an issue. But the guy consulted inside the White House. Someone needs to ask Hillary Clinton if giving Al-Din a visa was a mistake or a waiver.”
Experienced foreign policy gurus tell me this is, as one Middle East hand put it, “very bad.” This foreign policy expert tells me, “In plain English she is saying that this member of Gamaa Islamiyah is inadmissible as a member of an foreign terrorist organization (FTO) but was given a waiver. Why? Because he is a member of parliament. This means that any supporter of terrorism, any member of any FTO who can get himself elected, will be allowed into the US.” He argues: “This is a huge mistake. It will demoralize pro-US moderate forces who will conclude we can’t distinguish friends from enemies. It will help Islamist extremists, whom we are now labeling as sufficiently moderate to get visas. It will undermine our terrorism laws. On the contrary, we should be saying that anyone who is a member of an FTO and supports terror will be inadmissible — whether he is elected to parliament or elected king.” In particular, he criticized Nuland’s remark that “we have more folks who want to come here, want to know us, want to learn about the United States, want to develop relationships with us. We have the same interests with regard to them.” He tells me bluntly: “No, we don’t. We don’t want to develop relationships with supporters of terror. We want to keep them out of our country.”
The issue is now front and center: Has the State Department decided to waive in members of terrorist groups who manage to get elected in Arab countries? Clinton should be hauled up to the Hill to tell us what our policy is. I trust that isn’t a matter of executive privilege.