National Security

Published — March 24, 2010 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Airline bombing suspect originally denied visa by U.S. officials

Concerns about inaccurate application overruled by consular supervisor

Introduction

A U.S. consular official originally denied terrorism suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a visa to enter the United States in 2004 after finding false information on his application, but that official was overruled by a supervisor, according to senior government sources.

Because the 2004 situation was considered resolved, it was not revisited in 2008, when Abdulmutallab received a second U.S. visa, which allowed him to board a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, officials acknowledged. A senior Republican lawmaker said the reversal of the 2004 decision was a missed opportunity to keep him out of the country.

The decision to overrule the visa denial was one of a series of events that preceded Abdulmutallab’s arrest in connection with an alleged Christmas Day attempt to destroy the plane with a bomb. In January, the Obama administration released a review of the case that outlined a number of missteps but did not include any reference to the visa denial.

A State Department official said the incident was left out because the move to overturn the initial decision did not seem out of the ordinary. That official and others said that, in reversing the initial decision and granting Abdulmutallab a visa, consular officials took into account that his father was a prominent Nigerian banker with strong ties to his community. There was no derogatory information or suggestion that he had ties to Islamist terrorism, the officials said.

Some officials agreed to speak about the case on the condition of anonymity because details from individual visa applications are considered private information.

Abdulmutallab first applied for a U.S. visa in Lome, Togo, but was told that he needed to apply closer to his place of residence in Nigeria. He returned to Lagos and filed an application that stated incorrectly that he had never been denied a visa, leading a consular official to deny him one.

“It’s kind of outrageous that the consular officer overturned this denial in the first place,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in an interview. “The second thing is, if you go back to his first coming to this country, he could have been denied because he had lied on a previous application.”

Administration officials said their review found consular officials acted in accordance with the rules and policies at the time, but they acknowledged the State Department continues to strengthen its visa screening process in light of the information gained from the Detroit case.

“We always want to better anticipate threats. And since December we’ve continued to go back over this case and try to apply the lessons learned,” said one senior State Department official briefed on the matter.

Abdulmutallab’s visa history was recently shared with the Senate Intelligence Committee and House lawmakers, who have been exploring whether the government missed any red flags and could have prevented the Nigerian from entering the country.

Grassley said his staff was briefed about the visa situation this year but was forbidden by the government to talk about it. He agreed to discuss it only after State Department officials confirmed the details.

The senator and a key Democratic House lawmaker said the State Department needs far more visa security officers at embassies and missions around the world to screen applicants using a law enforcement mind-set.

“The Christmas Day incident highlighted the need to strengthen our visa security and information sharing protocols,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said. “These law enforcement personnel add a critical layer of security to the State Department’s visa process.”

Thompson’s committee is holding a hearing Thursday on problems in the visa-tracking system.

Officials said the consulate supervisor who authorized Abdulmutallab’s visa concluded that he had strong ties to Nigeria and no derogatory information in his background and that his inaccurate answer about having been denied a visa might have been based on a misunderstanding.

“When that judgment was reviewed, the supervisor concluded that this was not a willful misrepresentation and that he had the intent of returning home after visiting the United States,” one official explained.

The official said a key factor in the supervisor’s reversal was that the student came from a prominent and trusted family in Nigeria and had no record of wrongdoing.

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