Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asked for the resignation of the department's top consular official amid growing criticism about lax standards for U.S. visas, including new details about a visa fraud scheme at the U.S. Embassy in Qatar.
Assistant Secretary of State Mary Ryan, the longest-serving diplomat in the State Department, was asked to resign from the U.S. Foreign Service after nine years as head of consular affairs. As a "career ambassador," Ryan was the Foreign Service equivalent of a four-star general.
The move was announced on a day when department officials disclosed that three of 71 men suspected of paying bribes to obtain visas from the U.S. Embassy in Qatar had some connection to the Sept. 11 hijackers. Two of them -- roommates of hijackers living in Alexandria -- are in custody in the visa probe and a third is jailed as a material witness in the terrorism investigation, officials said.
Officially, the State Department portrayed Ryan's departure as part of a normal rotation for an official who had agreed to stay in her post from the previous administration. But her performance has come under sharp criticism on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers complained that she did not understand that needs had changed in the wake of Sept. 11.
"Mary Ryan needed to resign," said Rep. David Joseph Weldon (R-Fla.), who has been pressing to move consular affairs from State to the proposed Department of Homeland Security. "Ryan reformulated the consular affairs department to be greased and streamlined to bring people into the United States. Security was not on their minds."
"[Ryan's] philosophy was that we need to facilitate visitors to the U.S. The world has changed," said a senior State Department official. He said the Qatar visa scheme, disclosed this week, "may have been the straw that breaks the camel's back."
State Department Diplomatic Security officers are still trying to determine how the visas were issued and whether embassy officials were involved in a bribery scheme. Two Jordanian nationals are cooperating in the probe from Amman. One of them is a woman who worked in the embassy until June 2001; the other is a man who was arrested in Jordan in the visa scheme and has since been released, officials said.
One government official said the man found people who wanted visas and put them in touch with the woman inside the embassy. Officials said they do not know whether other officials inside the embassy took part in the bribery scheme.
Some of those who obtained visas in Qatar had previously been turned down for visas by other U.S. embassies, including the embassy in Amman.
Security officers on Monday confronted a consular officer who has returned from Qatar and is now living in the Washington area, a government official said. The man has retained a lawyer. State Department officials cautioned that they have not made any arrests and do not know whether they will.
Since June 24, 31 of the people have been detained around the country; 29 more are being sought. Of those in custody, 25 are Jordanians, five are Pakistanis and one is Syrian.
Officials said some of those who have been detained admitted paying bribes of $10,000 or more to middlemen to obtain the visas. The investigation began in November when the FBI learned that a Jordanian, Ramsi Shannaq, paid thousands of dollars for a visa. Diplomatic Security officials stepped up their efforts June 24 when they learned from the FBI that Shannaq roomed with Sept. 11 hijackers Hani Hanjour and Nawaf Alhazmi. A second man who lived with the hijackers was identified by a government official yesterday as Ahmad Ahmad.
Yesterday, a federal magistrate in Baltimore ordered Shannaq freed on bond to be posted by his family, subject to electronic monitoring. Federal prosecutors who objected to the release on grounds he was a flight risk immediately appealed the decision but were unsuccessful. Shannaq could be released to Immigration and Naturalization Service custody today, which could hold its own deportation hearing.
The State Department's visa problems extend well beyond the Qatar embassy.
One program under Ryan's watch that generated congressional ire was something called "Visa Express," which permitted travel agents in Saudi Arabia to forward visa applications for residents in Saudi Arabia. Three of the Sept. 11 hijackers used the program and were not interviewed by a U.S. official when they received their visas.
State Department officials have repeatedly defended the program, including yesterday, saying it was merely a clerical function to ease overcrowding.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the only change made in the program in response to the criticism is that it will no longer be called "Visa Express."
However, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Robert W. Jordan, cabled the State Department this week that he had decided to begin interviewing all adult applicants and eliminate the role of travel agencies in forwarding visa applications. "I am deeply troubled about the prevailing perception in the media and within Congress and possibly the American public at large that our current practices represent a shameful and inadequate effort on our part," Jordan wrote.
Ryan's abrupt dismissal infuriated career State Department officials, who said that Powell had badly undercut his pledge to lift the morale of the department.
"We had high hopes when he came in," said one official. "But most of my colleagues have not been impressed by the way he handled this. He hurt his reputation by making her a scapegoat for the failings of others."