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AMERICA'S OTHER ARMY: Inside the Foreign Service
Consular services changed after 9/11
By Nicholas Kralev
At first glance, David T. Donahue's experience on September 11, 2001, was not much different from that of most other Americans.
"I heard the first plane had already hit the World Trade Center, and then watched the second live on television, like everybody else," he recalled recently.
But although most Americans were at home or at work when the terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. Donahue was in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, where the plot that killed about 3,000 Americans most likely was hatched.
He had been dealing for days with the country's Taliban regime, which had provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network since 1996.
Mr. Donahue, the U.S. consul-general in Islamabad, the capital of neighboring Pakistan, was on a mission to rescue two U.S. citizens, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. The Christian relief workers, along with six Germans and Australians, had been detained five weeks earlier on proselytizing charges and faced possible death sentences.
"We had a beautiful morning," Mr. Donahue recalled. "We were out with a Taliban official, visiting the old German school where his son went. In the middle of the tour, we received a call that we had been granted permission to visit the girls, talk to them in depth and discuss legal representation for the first time."
Mr. Donahue was unable to secure the release of the women, who were freed only when the Taliban were overthrown in a U.S.-led war that November, but he continued to monitor their case from Islamabad.
"The war was going on, and I would call the Foreign Ministry as bombs rained down on the city. They would check on them and give us reports back," he said in an interview at the embassy in Manila, where he has been working since 2002.
As a Foreign Service officer with 18 years' experience, Mr. Donahue knew immediately after the September 11 attacks that the work of American diplomats overseas was bound to change. More than 2½ years later, those changes have been most profound in his line of work - consular affairs.
Protecting the interests of Americans abroad, as Mr. Donahue did in Kabul, is only part of that work. Consular officers also are the people responsible for issuing U.S. entry visas to foreigners.
That function, which is performed at 211 missions around the world, has come under intense scrutiny in Washington since it was discovered that the 19 hijackers who carried out the attacks had entered the United States on legally obtained visas.
"I think about this every day," said Maura Harty, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. "Since September 11, we are always looking at all of the moving parts and pieces."
Even the harshest critics, who immediately after the attacks demanded that the State Department be stripped of visa-issuing responsibilities, now say the fault lay less with individual officers than with a system that lacked basic coordination with intelligence and law-enforcement agencies.
"There was nothing in our consolidated database that would have said, 'Don't let these individuals in the country because they are terrorists,'" Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the commission investigating the attacks last week.
'Worked to death'
Although the State Department blames other agencies for failing to pass along information on terrorists, the events of September 11 exposed some chronic problems that had existed for years in the consular service.
More than 100 consular officers interviewed at about 30 posts on five continents said budget constraints and personnel shortages forced brand-new officers still learning the ropes to interview more than 100 visa applicants a day, often basing decisions on conversations as brief as a couple of minutes.
"We had more than 2,100 people requesting visas every day, so we were upping the number of interviews we did from 700 to 1,000 to 1,200 to 1,400, and we were worked to death," a junior officer in Latin America said about his previous post in the same region.
The burden became almost unbearable after September 11, many officers said, when new regulations demanded that every candidate except for diplomats, children and elderly people be interviewed in person, ending applications by mail.
"I wish we could just shut everything down sometimes to make a statement," an officer in East Asia said.
Mrs. Harty said the State Department is finally "beginning to hire to attrition and above," thanks to Mr. Powell's Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, which he started in 2001 to attract a larger and more diverse group of Americans to the Foreign Service.
Mrs. Harty told the September 11 commission in January that the department will create 161 new consular positions this year. It also has requested 123 more in next year's budget.
According to State Department figures, last year, 1,115 Foreign Service officers worked in consular positions, both in the United States and abroad, and 29 slots remained vacant.
The new focus on the consular service has led to renewed criticism about the way it is structured. Its higher management includes, for the most part, Foreign Service officers with a consular specialty, but the ranks are filled out with junior officers who are obligated to do consular work at the beginning of their careers, regardless of their chosen field.
Some of the critics say the consular service should be independent of the Foreign Service and have its own work force. Others advocate contracting out to private companies, perhaps under the State Department's supervision.
"We should find a way to minimize the amount of time spent doing the bureaucracy of immigration," said Warren Christopher, the first secretary of state in the Clinton administration.
"There is no reason why highly educated and trained Foreign Service officers ought to be doing as many routine tasks as they are now. It should be possible to have contract employees doing some of the less-challenging work at posts," he said in an interview.
Although some officers said consular work is a good way to begin a Foreign Service career, many pointed out that paying dues on the visa line is not what they signed up for when they decided to become diplomats.
"My first tour was as bad as it gets," said a management officer in Africa whose consular assignment was in Latin America. "It was like you [were working] at the [Department of Motor Vehicles]. I seriously considered leaving the service. I admire people who do consular work as a career."
One of those people is Virginia Hotchner, currently at the embassy in London, who said she was surprised when she started out by the rude treatment she received from visa applicants.
"Even if you say 'no' nicely, some people still yell at you and try to spit on you. It took me weeks not to take that personally, because I'd never had anyone speak to me that way before. Sometimes, they even threaten your life," she said.
In spite of the frustrations of the job, most interviewed officers rejected the widespread perception that all they do is "stamp passports." They said that their responsibilities are enormous and that the consequences of their decisions are crucial for U.S. security.
"We may not deal with the highest foreign policy, but every one of the cases has a chance to become that if we don't handle it as ably and professionally as we can," Mrs. Harty said.
"We have pushed our borders as far from the United States as possible. As visa adjudicators abroad, our goal is to stop questionable or dangerous travelers from ever reaching our shores."
Long before terrorism became a major concern, consular officers were obliged to watch out for visa applicants who might be planning to remain in the United States illegally.
Good officers, Mrs. Harty said, not only understand the law and know how to apply it, but are also familiar with the language, economic and political situation of the country in which they work.
They also know the travel patterns and overstay rates of candidates from that country, as well as the parts of the United States with large communities of that nationality, which could provide a social safety net for new immigrants.
Since September 11, officers have undergone counterterrorism training, where they learn to use watch lists and practice interviewing techniques. Some officers also specialize in investigating passport and visa fraud and other illegal activities.
Even with all the rules and regulations, the decisions that officers make on visa applications are largely subjective, many of them say.
They understand that in denying a visa, they might be frustrating an applicant's lifelong dream. They also know that many applicants have relatives and friends in the United States who will protest a rejection to their members of Congress.
"People who come to our consulates because they want to travel to the U.S. should have a dignified experience," Mrs. Harty said. "That doesn't mean that they have a right to a visa. But I have called officers off visa lines when I've found them to be rude to people."
She said the refusal rate is "still about 25 percent worldwide, as it was in 2000." But the number of applications has declined by nearly 35 percent since September 11, 2001.
Regardless of the difficulties, more than a dozen consular officers at various posts said they liked the work because it gave them the opportunity to help Americans in trouble.
"It may not be a big deal for you when you see hundreds of people a year, but it is for a little lady from Des Moines who has never traveled overseas and has had her bags grabbed and has been pushed around," Mrs. Hotchner said. "I love to be the one who can solve her problems."
American citizens' services are generally preferred by officers to visa work, but sometimes they cause the biggest headaches. Every member of Congress has heard complaints from constituents about heartless bureaucrats at embassies who care more about obeying rules and going home on time than helping people in need.
Consular officers say that if such behavior exists, it is extremely rare.
They also point out that the cases receiving media attention, such as child-custody battles in Saudi Arabia, are not typical of their daily work.
The State Department has been criticized harshly for failing to help American women whose Saudi ex-husbands will not let their children return to the United States.
Perhaps the most vocal of the critics has been Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, who accused the department in 2002 of doing "very little to help bring these children home."
"If we are not willing to stand up and fight for American citizens whose children have been kidnapped, what kind of priorities do we have?" he asked in 2002.
A spokesman for Mr. Burton said last week that he and Mrs. Harty have been working very well together to resolve the issue, but there is still much more to be done.
Several consular officers in the Middle East, who have recently served in Saudi Arabia and have knowledge of the cases, said the hands of the U.S. government often are tied in such circumstances.
"The fact is, there is so little the embassy can do," one officer said. "We have to obey the laws of the host country. There is a limit to the way we can smuggle people out of a country, which is what it amounts to. It's a horrible situation, and nobody wins."