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A visa security program created to help State Department consular officers identify people who might pose a security threat is largely ineffective, the General Accountability Office said.

VSP agents screen applicants against a database looking for matches of individuals who are known threats to the United States. Agents also check law enforcement databases and review applications for fraud, criminal activity, national security risks and illegal immigration risks. VSP agents can recommend refusal of a visa, but State Department consular officers ultimately decide whether to issue or deny a visa.

Between 2007 and 2010, approximately $94 million was spent on the program.

GAO found that due to the lack of performance data, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement cannot adequately evaluate the program. Even though ICE upgraded its tracking system in April 2010, the system still lacks information on active investigations, consular training, and assistance provided by VSP agents to consular officers.

Additional challenges have hurt the program.Some VSP agents have not provided any advice or training to consular officers, the over-arching purpose of the program. Five of the 13 consular offices the GAO interviewed did not receive training from VSP last year, and none of the VSP agents interviewed reported providing training on specific security threats.

ICE does not provide language training for overseas agents, which has limited the ability of VSP agents to conduct interviews or communicate with local law enforcement. ICE blames budget constraints on its inability to provide language training for agents, since they serve one or two year tours.

In addition, ICE has had to rely on temporary duty VSP agents to fill staffing shortages. Agents spend several weeks of their 30-day tour just learning VSP policies and procedures. Consular officers said the advice from temporary duty agents regarding visa refusal were inconsistent or insufficient at times.

Although ICE developed an expansion plan for VSP, it is far behind its original goals. Out of the 20 posts identified by ICE and State as highest risk, 11 do not have a VSP unit. And VSP was supposed to include 14 new posts by 2010, but nine of these locations have not been established.

“The VSP will be limited in its goal to minimize global visa risk until DHS addresses the challenges of guidance, staffing, and data collection, and provides coverage and support to those high-risk posts without VSP agents at post,” the GAO said in its report.

FAST FACT: As of December 2010, the Visa Security Program was established in 15 countries.

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