Better Vetting, Not Bans: A former CIA officer’s look at the new visa policies

 In CIA, Counterterrorism, Foreign Policy

On September 24, President Trump announced a newly updated policy to replace existing travel bans implemented earlier this year. The policy includes a range of restrictions on Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea and Venezuela. According to the administration, these eight countries ended up on the list because they have inadequate vetting procedures and/or do not cooperate with the United States with regard to the exchange of information that would enable us to vet visa applicants.

In my opinion, a travel ban is an excuse for the inability of our government to vet people coming into this country.  As it currently stands, we are unable to do proper vetting—and this was acknowledged in Trump’s statement. However, he and his administration believe this is a function of other country’s inadequate systems and documentation, when, in fact, it is our own shortcoming. We are terrible at vetting.

How do I know this? Because I worked for the government for ten years and I saw first-hand how our officers lacked the expertise, cultural knowledge, linguistic skills, and overall training to vet people, their claims, and their documentation. And the bedrock of our current vetting system is name traces which are hard to do well. If you don’t have the proper training and substantive expertise, traces of names not originally written in the English alphabet are incredibly hard to make sense of.

Our current visa system needs to be overhauled and we need a significant amount of training to improve our vetting procedures. This training needs to occur in all the agencies involved in reviewing immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applications (and conducting intelligence and security-related activities).

Here is a further breakdown of the updated policy on each of the eight countries:

North Korea: The policy blocks the issuance of all visas to North Koreans. This is largely a symbolic move because most North Korean citizens are not permitted to leave North Korea. There are only two categories of North Koreans traveling abroad:

  • Government representatives–diplomats, pseudo government/business leaders, and spies. When they leave the DPRK on business, they always travel in groups and have minders to ensure they don’t “make a run for it” at the earliest opportunity. Of course, we want to limit the ability of North Korean officials to use their travel to the U.S. to develop contacts that allow them to line the pockets of self-appointed leader and god, Kim Jung Un. But there are already mechanisms in place that allow us to ban the travel of individuals based on intelligence that they are human rights violators, regime officials involved in smuggling activities, etc.
  • A tiny number of people who risk their lives to escape that hell hole: asylum seekers and defectors.

An overarching travel ban is symbolic, and senseless really, because it belies our desire to provide refuge to any North Korean who can make it out of that awful place. I think that as a matter of principle, we should welcome North Korean citizens with open arms, but this new policy does not reflect that sentiment.

Venezuela: The policy blocks visas for certain government officials on business or tourist travel and their immediate families. Just like the situation of North Korea, we should ban the travel of government officials who prop up or support the Maduro regime. I am glad to hear that this is not a blanket ban. While we should ban the travel of human rights-crushing regime officials to the United States—those who are killing protestors and starving their people to death–a blanket ban of all Venezuelan officials would work against our human rights stance and foreign policy goals.

Syria: The order bars all travelers–immigrants and non-immigrants–from Syria. While I am a huge advocate for improved vetting procedures from people coming from active war zones in which so many are committing human rights violations and are involved in terrorism, a blanket ban is never a good idea. It causes much angst in cases where we are trying to help the most vulnerable and those persecuted for their thoughts and ideas, etc. I can assure you that the very people designing this policy will see some of the results and shake their heads saying, “this is not what we intended.”

There’s this insidious little dynamic called the law of unintended consequences—This administration hasn’t taken the time to debate the issues and seek to understand how an outright ban will figure into various scenarios. I promise that there are several they’ve never considered: What about the family that has been split and—the wife is in the US and the husband is stuck in Syria….or we can’t exfiltrate a human rights advocate from Syria and bring them to the US. What about Christians and other minorities who face genocide there?

Iran: Nearly all visas were blocked except those for students and visitors in exchange programs. Why are we holding all Iranians accountable for the sins of the regime and not focusing on the travel of regime members and their families (Just as we are doing with Venezuela)? There are so many good people in Iran that hate their government and travel to the U.S. and Europe for a break from the strictures of the “Shi’a caliphate” where there is no freedom of religion, thought, worship, right to gather, or press. The Iranian government seeks to crush anything that does not fit their state controlled religion that dictates law, economy, culture, socialization, etc. So much of the Iranian population does not share their views, so why lump them all in together?

Chad, Libya, Yemen: The policy bans the issuance of all immigrant visas, as well as business and tourist visas. With regard to Libya and Yemen which are essentially failed states, I understand why government officials say that folks coming from these places are difficult to vet. Their governments can barely operate, never mind issue travel documents like passports, drivers’ licenses, and national identity cards. At the same time, I know Libyans and Yemenis that are honest, hard-working, non-radical folks who travel quite frequently to the United States and should be allowed to continue to do so. A total travel ban does not make sense—better vetting procedures do. (And to date, improvement of our actual vetting procedures hasn’t been discussed in any meaningful way.)

(Note: I have no experience in Chad, so am not able to provide value-added insight into this specific policy.)

Somalia: Prevents the issuance of immigrant visas and extra scrutiny for non-immigrant travelers.  I don’t know what the justification is for a total ban on immigrant visas for all Somalis. I’d like to hear it though.

In summary, I don’t think blanket bans are a good idea for the following reasons:

Total bans interfere with our foreign policy, intelligence, and human rights objectives. Such extreme policies prevent the government’s own officials from doing their jobs in these areas.

And just as critically, these policies ignore the biggest problem—we have broken and inefficient visa and immigration systems that require a complete overhaul. Far from being strong, it is ridiculously broken. Despite all the talk about vetting, few people actually know what vetting is or how to do it. Like the previous Democrat and Republican administrations, the Trump team is hyper-focused on policies and not procedures. We have an opportunity here, and once again our country is missing the forest for the trees.



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