QUESTION: And my last one. You guys have come under some pretty intense fire today about the issuances of visas to the hijackers in at least three publications that I found.
MR. BOUCHER: Only one author.
QUESTION: One author, three different publications, obviously shopping it around to a variety of places. But one former State Department official is quoted as saying that there was criminal negligence involved, and I'm wondering what you make of this allegation.
MR. BOUCHER: I don't make a lot of it. The Department has, first of all, cooperated fully and supported the efforts of our investigators to find out everything they could about the hijackers and about the circumstances under which they came to the United States. What information our US Government agencies might have had or might not have had, the fact is that with 20/20 hindsight, I'm sure one can always find a reason that you might have turned down a visa or turned down or made a different decision. But at the time, we had no information on any of these people in the namecheck system or any other indications that they didn't qualify for a visa.
I would note that since September 11th we've done an awful lot to improve the detail and the rigor of our screening of visas. We require much more information from applicants. We have much more extensive screening procedures. We have vastly expanded the information in our databases about potential terrorists and criminals. We've dramatically increased the percentage of applicants who must come for personal interviews. In Saudi Arabia, all men between the ages of 12 and 70 are being interviewed unless they are government officials or personally known already to the embassy.
So we have made any number of changes to try to improve standards of visa processing worldwide to make sure that the primary goal of keeping out the people who don't belong here, keeping out the people who may do us harm, that that goal is being met.
QUESTION: Well, of course, the article doesn't talk about post-9/11, it talks about pre-9/11, and says that and alleges that even under the standards that were applicable at the time, pre-9/11, these applications should have been rejected on their face because they contained either incomplete or factually incorrect information. What do you have to say to this?
MR. BOUCHER: That's easy to say now and I'm sure all of us would like to say that now. 214(b) is a catch-all that says that if the applicant doesn't establish to the satisfaction of the consular officer that he's going to the United States for a temporary period and limited purposes you'll see the exact language in the law then he can be turned down for a visa and should be turned down for a visa. And that's the way we operate around the world.
In each particular case, we look at the application, whatever interviews, whatever other information we have, we do the name checks and, you know, we turn down the people who don't deserve visas, who don't clearly qualify for visas. As I've said, it's easy sort of as a Monday morning quarterback to say somebody would have made this different decision, but I don't think that's fair to the process, and in any case, the process is vastly different now than it was then.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, but the but Richard, the argument that's advanced is that these people should have been turned down, and you're saying that they would have been if they were if their applications were I mean, you're saying in a sense, I think and correct me if I'm wrong that these people did qualify for visas under the existing rules at the time.
MR. BOUCHER: Yeah.
QUESTION: They did?
MR. BOUCHER: They did. That was what the consular officers determined. And in the end, that's what matters.
QUESTION: Okay, but
MR. BOUCHER: To establish to the satisfaction of the consular officer, based on all the information the consular officer had.
MR. BOUCHER: So, you know, you can second-guess these decisions, but the fact is now the situation is different: the processing is different, the information available to our consular officers is different, the amount of information required of applicants is different, the databases are different. So whatever one thinks about what could have happened, should have happened, might have happened, with those applications that were deemed legitimate at the time based on all the information we had, one has to say that it's a different situation now. We have vastly improved the processing and the security of the applications.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, then, so you do not take a position on whether the consular officers who approved these visas were wrong in determining that these people were eligible?
MR. BOUCHER: No.
QUESTION: They so at the time
MR. BOUCHER: At the time, the consular officers, based on what they had available to them, okay, which is a lot less information than somebody would have now, which wasn't the entire US Government database because we didn't get that information from all the agencies at that time but even then, I'm not sure we would have had a hit.
QUESTION: Okay. So the long and short of it
MR. BOUCHER: So based on what they knew at the time, they issued the visas. That's a judgment that they had to make. I'm not checking that judgment now. I'm just saying the whole process is different now.
QUESTION: So you reject outright that there was criminal negligence as to this
MR. BOUCHER: I saw the phrase. I think that's rhetorical and not judicial, so I'm not going to try to deal with it.