Visa denial was reversed for terrorism suspect in 2004

By John Solomon
Thursday, March 25, 2010

A U.S. consular official originally denied terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a visa to enter the United States in 2004 after finding false information on his application, but that official was overruled by a supervisor, according to senior government sources.

Because the 2004 situation was considered resolved, it was not revisited in 2008, when Abdulmutallab received a second U.S. visa, which allowed him to board a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, officials acknowledged. A senior Republican lawmaker said the reversal of the 2004 decision was a missed opportunity to keep him out of the country.

The decision to overrule the visa denial was one of a series of events that preceded Abdulmutallab's arrest in connection with an alleged Christmas Day attempt to destroy the plane with a bomb. In January, the Obama administration released a review of the case that outlined a number of missteps but did not include any reference to the visa denial.

An official said the incident was left out because the move to overturn the initial decision did not seem out of the ordinary. That official and others said that, in reversing the initial decision and granting Abdulmutallab a visa, consular officials took into account that his father was a prominent Nigerian banker with strong ties to his community. There was no derogatory information or suggestion that he had ties to Islamist terrorism.

Some officials agreed to speak about the case on the condition of anonymity because details from individual visa applications are considered private information.

Abdulmutallab first applied for a U.S. visa in Lome, Togo, but was told that he needed to apply closer to his place of residence in Nigeria. He returned to Lagos and filed an application that stated incorrectly that he had never been denied a visa, leading a consular official to deny him one.

"It's kind of outrageous that the consular officer overturned this denial in the first place," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in an interview. "The second thing is, if you go back to his first coming to this country, he could have been denied because he had lied on a previous application."

Administration officials said their review found consular officials acted in accordance with the rules and policies at the time, but they acknowledged the State Department continues to strengthen its visa screening process in light of the information gained from the Detroit case.

"We always want to better anticipate threats. And since December we've continued to go back over this case and try to apply the lessons learned," said one senior State Department official briefed on the matter.

Abdulmutallab's visa history was recently shared with the Senate Intelligence Committee and House lawmakers, who have been exploring whether the government missed any red flags and could have prevented the Nigerian from entering the country.

Grassley said his staff was briefed about the visa situation this year but was forbidden by the government to talk about it. He agreed to discuss it only after State Department officials confirmed the details.

The senator and a key Democratic House lawmaker said the State Department needs far more visa security officers at embassies and missions around the world to screen applicants using a law enforcement mind-set.

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