GAO: Info sharing would bolster visa security

Improving information sharing would enhance the security of the visa issuance process, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Information sharing among consular officers and law enforcement and intelligence personnel at U.S. embassies and consulates was inconsistent, the report found.

“Although [the State Department] and the FBI have taken steps to increase the amount of information available to consular officers in the visa process, further information from criminal history files would help facilitate visa adjudication for legitimate travelers” and prevent terrorism, the report said.

GAO listed seven recommendations to State and the Homeland Security Department, including one to foster more frequent and substantive interactions among consular sections, law enforcement officials and intelligence officials at each post. That would improve information sharing with the consular staff on terrorism issues that affect issuing visas, the report states.

GAO also suggested that Congress consider mandating State and the FBI to create and implement a plan providing faster and wider access to certain information in FBI criminal history files. The plan should describe what additional information should be made available, how the FBI would provide it, the report recommends.

The plan should also address any possible technical or privacy concerns about sharing the information with visa adjudicators and how to ameliorate the concerns.

State and the FBI would have to report to Congress about the plan and any legislative changes needed to authorize it.

State agreed with GAO’s conclusions and the call for congressional review, Sid Kaplan, State’s acting CFO, said in a written response.

“The department strongly agrees that complete information for consular officers is a crucial tool in fighting terrorism and that more complete information from [National Crime Information Center] criminal files would facilitate visa adjudications,” Kaplan said.

DHS agreed with GAO’s recommendations for improving the information sharing infrastructure in the visa process, Steven Pecinovsky, director of the liaison office between GAO and DHS’ inspector general, wrote in response.

The Justice Department declined to comment on GAO’s recommendation about increasing visa adjudicators’ access to FBI criminal history information.

Justice did, however, provide information about how it is improving information sharing of law enforcement and intelligence matters with consular officials.

The U.S. government is integrating a number of databases to speed access to biometrically verified criminal history information, Justice officials said in their response to the report.

The integration will improve the accuracy and reliability of criminal background checks made as part of the visa issuance process, they said.

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