Mary Ryan, 65; Embattled Consular Chief

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 29, 2006

Mary A. Ryan, 65, a State Department diplomat whose stellar career came to an end when she was embroiled in a post-Sept. 11 dispute over whether U.S. visa standards had grown lax under her watch, died April 25 of myelofibrosis at her home in the District.

An assistant secretary of state, she was the longest-serving diplomat in the State Department at the time of her resignation in September 2002, after 36 years of service. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asked for her resignation after she had served for nine years as head of consular affairs, which oversees the visa-issuing process.

Officially, the State Department said Ms. Ryan's exit was part of a normal rotation for someone who had agreed to stay in the post from the previous administration, but some Capitol Hill lawmakers had been clamoring for her departure. They complained that she did not seem to realize the visa system needed to change because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The object of their ire was a program called "visa express," which allowed residents in Saudi Arabia to obtain visas through travel agents. Three of the Sept. 11 hijackers used the program and were not interviewed by a U.S. official when they received their visas. A visa fraud scheme at the U.S. Embassy in Qatar added fuel to the accusations being made by Ms. Ryan's critics.

The Washington Post reported that Ms. Ryan's abrupt dismissal infuriated career State Department officials, who said that Powell violated his pledge to improve department morale.

Her State Department successor, Assistant Secretary of State Maura Harty, noted that Ms. Ryan testified in 2004 before the Sept. 11 commission and, in Harty's words, "put her finger right on it as a much broader and complex event than the visa iteration."

Harty also noted that many of Ms. Ryan's friends urged Ms. Ryan to speak out more forcefully in response to her critics, but she refused. "She was unbelievably professional, restrained and gracious," Harty said.

"Given the politics of the time, with the secretary under tremendous pressure on the Hill, she wanted to make sure that the visa process remained with the department," said Johnny Young, a former ambassador to Sierra Leone, Togo, Bahrain and Slovenia.

Ms. Ryan was born in New York and received a bachelor's degree in 1963 and a master's degree in 1965, both from St. John's University. She remained a New Yorker, at least in spirit, her entire life, with a New York Public Library book bag constantly filled with books and a passionate attachment to the New York Yankees, despite growing up in a New York Mets household.

She entered the Foreign Service in 1966, beginning her career in Naples. She served in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and in Monterrey, Mexico, before returning to Washington in 1975 as roving administrative officer for Africa and as post management officer in the Bureau of African Affairs.

Going overseas again in 1980, she served as administrative counselor in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and Khartoum, Sudan, and in 1988 was appointed ambassador to Swaziland. In 1990, she became director of the Kuwait Task Force after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

In 1991, she was one of 14 consular officers fired by Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth M. Tamposi. On the same day she lost her consular position, she became the first director of operations for the United Nations Special Commission on the elimination of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, based in New York.

When Tamposi, a political appointee, was fired by acting Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger for authorizing the search of passport records belonging to then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, Ms. Ryan returned to Washington as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs. She became the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs in 1993.

She was named career ambassador in 1999, the second woman to hold the rank in the history of the State Department. She also received the Presidential Distinguished Service Award in 1992 and 1998 and the State Department's 1996 Arnold L. Raphel Award for mentoring.

"She was known for developing junior officers, and especially women," Harty said. "If you were in the service a minute less time than Mary, she was your mentor."

In retirement, Ms. Ryan tutored students in the D.C. schools and volunteered as a Eucharistic minister for patients at George Washington University Hospital. She served as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at St. Stephen Martyr Roman Catholic Church in the District, attended the Shrine of the Blessed Sacrament in the District and graduated from a two-year program in parish administration at Trinity University.

Survivors include a sister.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company