NSB Logo

Remarks to the National Science Board

Open Plenary Session, October 16, 2003

Arlington, Virginia

- by -

Mr. Edward Ramotowski

Director, Office of Public and Diplomatic Liaison Visa Services

U.S. Department of State



I would like to thank the Chairman and Dr. Crosby for their kind invitation to speak to the National Science Board about current and future U.S. visa policy.

Let me begin by saying that the Department of State is well aware of the vital importance of international travel to the U.S. economy in general, and to academic and scientific exchanges in particular.  We know that scientific inquiry does not end at the U.S. border, and we respect the enormous contributions that visiting students, scholars and scientists have made to our society.

At the same time, our operating environment changed forever on September 11, 2001 and there is no turning back the clock.  Security is now and will continue to be the top priority in the processing of visas for international visitors.  The State Department is committed to strengthening the visa process as a tool for protecting U.S. national security.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has articulated our policy as “Secure Borders and Open Doors.”  The Secretary, and all of us in the Bureau of Consular Affairs who administer the visa system are keenly aware of the need to strike a proper balance between these two objectives.  We do not believe that they are incompatible, and we are working every day to improve our ability to increase the security of our borders while facilitating legitimate travel.

Enhancing U.S. security means pushing borders out to our visa processing posts abroad.   We have made enormous progress in identifying individuals who may present a threat to our nation through enhanced inter-agency data sharing. Since 9/11, we've added over 7.3 million new records, primarily FBI NCIC (criminal history) data, to our visa namecheck system, known as CLASS (Consular Lookout Automated Support System). The “TIPOFF” database on suspected or actual terrorists has incorporated into CLASS over 73,000 entries, more than double its size on September 11th.

We try to work “smart”, and we have been big users of automated tools. Thanks to the work of Congress our Machine Readable Visa fees have allowed us to invest in technology. We continue to refine this technology and to increase connectivity between the Department, overseas posts, and other agencies. But technology can't do it all. We're working with other interested agencies on a rational, more targeted  visa clearance process that is both transparent and predictable.

We're in pretty good shape to find the “bad guys” who have already been identified by other agencies and are included in our visa lookout system. Dealing with what we don't know is more of a challenge. For that we have the security advisory opinion process to permit other agencies to take a look at a case before we issue a visa.

We know that this is an issue of great concern to the scientific community because the need for enhanced clearances has caused delays, sometimes lengthy ones, for some visa applicants.  While I can cite figures showing that less than 2.5 percent of all visa cases are subject to special namecheck procedures in Washington, I know that is small consolation to you if a key member of your research team is caught up in the process.  For this reason, I’d like to provide you with more details on the current namecheck system.

First of all, it is important to understand that the Department of State primarily serves as the administrative clearinghouse for the clearance process – the actual checks are performed by other agencies in the law enforcement and intelligence communities with whom we collaborate closely.

Second, the volume of namechecks has expanded dramatically since September 11.  Before that date, approximately 4,000 Washington clearances were performed on an annual basis.  Now the total approaches 200,000 per year.  These massive increases have strained the system and contributed to the processing delays that applicants have experienced over the past year.

Third, the interagency community has ended the practice of “clocked” security clearances.  Prior to July 2002, a 30-day time limit was in place for many clearances.  If the Department did not receive any derogatory information from other agencies regarding a visa applicant, we could assume that these agencies had no objection to visa issuance and proceed with the case.  The huge increase in clearance requests has made this system untenable, and we must now wait for an affirmative response from each agency before we can issue the visa.  While the majority of these special clearance cases are handled within three weeks, other cases have unfortunately experienced lengthy delays.

The Visas Mantis program is another specialized security screening process that affects the scientific community. It relates to the transfer of sensitive technology and information under the Immigration and Nationality Act.  Federal agencies participating in the Visas Mantis program review select applications and provide the information needed by the State Department to determine an applicant's visa eligibility.

The Mantis program was established in 1998 and consolidated a number of older nationality-based programs into a single review mechanism.  It is an effective tool for screening out individuals and entities that seek to gain controlled goods, technology and sensitive information in violation of US export laws.

To assist consular officers in this difficult and vitally important task the State Department, in conjunction with Federal intelligence and national security agencies, regularly updates a list of policy objectives and critical technologies, which trigger Mantis  clearance requests. 

In deciding to submit an application for review for reasons related to possible illegal technology transfer, the consular officer must first determine whether the applicant's proposed activity in the United States would involve exposure to any of fifteen sensitive technologies included in the Technology Alert List (TAL). In deciding whether one of the listed activities may be in violation of US export control laws, the consular officer must review that activity in light of the following broad policy objectives related to technology transfer:

    o Stem proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile delivery systems.

    o Restrain the development of destabilizing conventional military capabilities in certain regions of the world.

    o Prevent the transfer of arms and sensitive dual use items to terrorist states.

    o Maintain U.S. advantages in certain militarily critical technologies.

Second, for applicants from any of the countries designated by the Department to be state sponsors of terrorism, (Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria) consular officers are instructed to assume that any visit providing exposure to any of the technologies on the Technology Alert List will conflict with policy objectives, and therefore a Visas Mantis special clearance is mandatory.

Third, consular officers may send to Washington any case that appears to warrant further interagency review.

The Visas Mantis program allows all participating agencies to provide information and raise any particular concerns they may have regarding the applicant and/or the proposed activities in the U.S.

As I noted at the outset, the State Department strives to balance this effort to protect our national security with the responsibility to facilitate travel and scientific exchange.  We, therefore, have worked diligently to process legitimate travelers subject to Mantis clearances as quickly as possible and, at the same time, to deter or prevent potentially inadmissible travelers from gaining entry to the United States.

The Visas Mantis caseload has also grown significantly since September 11th, and this growth has led to processing delays. At any given moment, we have from 1,500 to 2,000 Mantis cases pending in the interagency review process. The increase is attributable to a more intensive interagency review of Mantis cases.

 We have increased our staffing and computer resources to improve our ability to act as the clearinghouse for these cases, and we have worked closely with other agencies to address their handling of this growing workload.  An increasing number of routine Mantis cases are being cleared in 30 days or less.  Others, however, are taking significantly longer and we are doing what we can to reduce these delays.

That in a nutshell is the current visa security clearance system.  So, what can you expect in the near-term future?

For one thing, the State Department is planning major changes in our use of automation in light of the creation of an interagency network known as OSIS, i.e. Open Source Information System. We will spend close to one million dollars over a one-year period to eliminate telegrams from our overseas posts as the vehicle for disseminating cases to other agencies. We will use real-time datashare and eliminate virtually all manual manipulation of routine data. We expect to field test this new system later in the fall and deploy it worldwide in early 2004. Our objective is to get cases to intelligence and law enforcement analysts as quickly as possible and eliminate administrative delays. This initiative could shorten processing times by approximately five business days and better track the status of specific cases.

We are also streamlining the Mantis process, and will authorize a Mantis clearance to remain valid for a 12 month period under certain conditions, for visa applicants returning to do the same work or research for which the original Mantis clearance was requested.  These applicants will not need a Mantis clearance every time they travel.


But technology alone is not the answer.  Thanks to Secretary Powell’s successful efforts to obtain more resources for the State Department, we created 39 new consular positions in Fiscal Year 2003 and will fill 80 new positions next year.  We have also added 10 new positions to our security clearance unit in Washington.  All of these positions will contribute to a more efficient and secure visa process.

In addition, The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act has mandated that by October 26, 2004, the State Department must only issue visas with biometric identifiers.  The interagency community has settled on fingerprints as the biometric of choice for these visas, and four consulates (Brussels, Frankfurt, Guatemala City, and San Salvador are already collecting fingerprints electronically from visa applicants.  This process will be steadily expanded and will be in place at all visa issuing posts before the October deadline.  The fingerprinting has gone smoothly at all four test posts and has not delayed visa processing.  The fingerprint data will be shared with the Department of Homeland Security, as is the other visa information that we collect.

This brings me to my last point, and that is to reemphasize again the interagency nature of the visa process.  On September 29 of this year, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security signed a Memorandum of Understanding governing the relationship of the two departments with respect to the visa process.  Essentially, the Department of Homeland Security will have the final say about most elements of visa policy, while the State Department will administer the process.  The Department of Homeland Security also manages the domestic side of the immigration process, including border inspections and immigration services.  DHS has the final authority on who is permitted to enter the United States, and it would be advisable for the scientific community to have a dialogue with that Department, just as you are doing with the Department of State.

The same holds true in engaging the FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies.  Although the State Department is the public face of the visa system, many other Departments and agencies are involved in the process.  We are all working together to protect U.S. security while facilitating legitimate travel.  “Secure borders, open doors” is the goal we strive for every day.

I appreciate your time, and I would be pleased to take any questions that you might have.

Back to NSB Meetings