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Report Says Fraud, Abuse Are Possible Under Iraqi Visa Law

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

A new law that permits up to 5,000 Iraqis who previously worked for the U.S. government or its contractors to resettle in the United States annually over the next five years "is at high risk for fraud and abuse," according to consular officials interviewed by the State Department inspector general.

That opinion is contained in a report by the inspector general's Middle East regional office, which investigated an earlier program that in 2007 and 2008 provided special immigrant visas to 500 Iraq and Afghan translators and interpreters who had worked for U.S. government agencies. The report, obtained by The Washington Post, was completed in July but has not been publicly released.

The investigators found that almost 25 percent of those approved worked "in a variety of positions such as medical doctors, computer programmers, engineers, pharmacists, warehouse workers, and caterers" and "did not meet the criteria as working primarily as interpreters or translators." Several cases involved individuals who "could not speak English," according to the report.

Iraqis who had worked for the Defense Department -- making up 95 percent of the resettlement cases -- were required to obtain recommendation letters from U.S. generals or flag officers as part of their application. However, investigators found that most of the letters submitted appeared to be "nonspecific pro forma documents endorsing petition submissions from military subordinates."

The report also disclosed that among those approved were "former Saddam-era military personnel including Republican Guard officers, a chemical warfare specialist, a former fighter pilot who flew against U.S. military forces, and a commander of the national air defense center."

State Department officials contended they had no authority to question the letters, saying "running a background check and screening was the responsibility of the general or flag officer" or of the Department of Defense, according to the report.

The law, contained in the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization Act signed by President Bush last January, is more expansive. It provides that over each of the next five years, 5,000 Iraqis who have provided "faithful and valuable service" to U.S. government agencies or their contractors and as a result faced "an ongoing serious threat" are eligible for the special immigrant visas (SIVs) for themselves and their immediate family members to enter the United States. The recipients also will be eligible for financial help reaching the United States, along with resettlement benefits once they arrive.

Based on its investigation of the earlier resettlement program, the inspector general's office concluded that the "difficult security and economic environment in Iraq, coupled with the enlarged applicant pool and enhanced benefits, will attract numerous individuals who will try to dishonestly insert themselves into the SIV queue." According to the report, investigators interviewed current and former consular officers involved in the program, some of whom were also part of a similar effort at the end of the Vietnam War. The officers interviewed concluded that the new program "is at high risk for fraud and abuse."

There is no central repository or database for the names of Iraqis who have worked for U.S. government agencies or their contractors, the report says. And while the State Department has records for Iraqis who worked for the U.S. Embassy, its regional offices and provincial reconstruction teams, most of the supervisors who are needed to document "faithful and valuable service" have left the country.

The report also describes as "a challenge" the effort to determine whether an applicant "is experiencing an ongoing serious threat based upon their employment." It calls for State to coordinate with the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to develop a "clear definition of what constitutes . . . an ongoing serious threat" and how to verify it.

Melissa Waggoner, a spokeswoman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a chief author of the new SIV program, said the State Department had taken steps "to correct the issues raised in the report."

She added: "We're satisfied that Ambassador [Ryan C.] Crocker is fully committed to rescuing those Iraqis whose lives are at risk for helping Americans."

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