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How did the Pensacola Murderer Get a Visa?

Let’s not let the death of our servicemen go in vain. One of lessons learned from the Pensacola attacks must be to apply the same visa requirements to most foreign officials that are necessary for other NIV visa applicants. This is in line with President Trump’s extreme vetting initiative and in the interest of homeland security.

Late Servicemen Airman Mohammad Sameh Haitham, 19, from St. Petersburg, Fla., left, and Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, from Coffee, Ala. (U.S. Navy Photos)

Sickening Murder


It’s been more than a month and I am still sickened that three more of our young servicemen fell senselessly on December 6. #AttorneyGeneral William Barr labeled the murder of three American sailors by a Saudi military officer an act of terrorism during his January 13 press conference.


The investigation into Second Lieutenant Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani’s mass shooting at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola revealed that he was motivated by jihadist ideology. It also exposed derogatory material, including jihadi or anti-American content, possessed by 21 Saudi military officers training in the US. They have since returned to Saudi Arabia.


Americans are asking how did a murderer and 21 officers with derogatory material receive visas to come to the US and train on American military compounds in the first place? One reason is that the State Department’s non-immigrant visa (NIV) process for foreign officials, such as these Saudi servicemen, is less stringent than for other visa types – like tourists, students, and immigrants.


Americans are asking how did a murderer and 21 officers with derogatory material receive visas to come to the US and train on American military compounds in the first place?

Foreign Official Visa Process


The primary difference is that foreign government officials do not undergo an interview with a consular officer at an American embassy or consulate abroad. For example, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia all applicants between the ages of 14 and 79 are required to appear for an interview with a consular officer to qualify for a visa. However, official visa applicants are exempted. According to the State Department website, “Embassies and consulates generally do not require interviews for those applying for A-1 and A-2 [official] visas."


The intention of waiving the interview for officials is to reciprocate good will towards the local government and to further bilateral relations. But the United States is taking a risk by not interviewing them.


The interview provides several benefits. First, the visa interview is an opportunity for a consular officer to get eyes on the applicant. Consular officers are trained to ask probing questions to assess the applicant’s character, background and intentions for travel. Next, electronic fingerprints are taken during the interview. The collected fingerprints are compared against existing biometric databases, including the system that provides information for law enforcement and border protection, before the applicant arrives in the United States.

The State Department’s non-immigrant visa (NIV) process for foreign officials, such as these Saudi servicemen, is less stringent than for other visa types.

Finally, based on the interview the consular officer may request a Security Advisory Opinion (SAO). The SAO process looks for possible illegal activity including espionage, terrorism, criminal activity, and financial crimes. The State Department works with other federal agencies to do a comprehensive background check on the applicant. Only after the investigation is complete - and the applicant is cleared - can the visa for travel be issued. This is a routine part of the visa issuance process.


For the majority of government officials there is no interview with a consular officer, no collections of fingerprints prior to arriving in America, and no SAO required. We are approving some visas without fully leveraging America’s intelligence community. This is a convenience for foreign officials, but a vulnerability to the visa adjudication process and- by extension - the American people.

The body of Navy Ensign Joshua Watson, one of the victims in the Pensacola shooting, arrived at Dover Air Force Base on Dec. 8. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Fixing the Gap


AG Barr stated that he is coordinating with the #DepartmentofDefense (DoD) to improve the vetting of candidates prior to arriving in America. However the vetting process goes beyond DoD. The #DepartmentofState’s consular officers play a crucial role in this process.


Let’s not let the death of our servicemen go in vain. I hope one of lessons learned from the Pensacola attacks will be to apply the same visa application requirements to most foreign officials that are necessary for other visa applicants in that country. This includes conducting interviews with consular officers, collecting fingerprinting, and requesting SAOs when required.


Apply the same visa application requirements to most foreign officials that are necessary for other visa applicants.

This is in line with President Trump’s extreme vetting initiative and in the interest of #homeland #security. While we may never know if doing this would have prevented the death of three sailors, it may help deter attacks in the future.


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