Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the US Foreign Service and author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People," and Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, share their opinions on a high-profile cash-for-visa scheme that involved a US consular officer and five accomplices. The opinions expressed are their own.
Michael Sestak, a former US Foreign Service officer, pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington D.C. on November 6 to accepting more than US$3 million in bribes in exchange for visas he approved for almost 500 Vietnamese nationals entry into the US. Sestak, 42, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, bribery and money laundering. He was arrested on May 13.
Sestak worked as the non-immigrant visa chief of the US Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City from August 2010 to September 2012. His job required him to review and grant visa applications.
People see off their relatives going abroad at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Diep Duc Minh
The problem is that no one knows how common such things are. This case is quite typical a Consular Officer is accused of fraudulently issuing many, many visas, and only gets caught when one of his clients turns him in. Had no one turned him, who knows how long this might have gone on? The simple fact is that internal controls on the visa process are very weak, and almost wholly dependent on the integrity of the individual officer. Couple that with the legal allowance, that most cases are decided by the individual officer's judgment without a second person there for checks and balances, plus in many places the unspoken pressure to issue or refuse in certain percentages [of applicants] to satisfy political needs, and it is a recipe for disaster.
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The lack of oversight is appalling, and leads not only to fraud and corruption, but to international level events. The US State Department issued visas to all of the 9/11 hijackers, remember, not through corruption, but through a system without proper controls.
When I did Consular work for over 20 years I can count on one hand, and not need all the fingers, the times when anyone questioned a decision by me to issue a visa. I was not corrupt, but as a human being I did make mistakes, and I can't believe all my decisions were right.
The US must decide if it wants to fix the system; what happened in Vietnam is far from the first time and won't be the last. Throughout these incidents, the State Department has done very little to reform the weak link in the process: the lack of adequate oversight on the individual visa decisions. For example, internal State Department practice only requires supervisors to review visa refusals, and does not encourage nor require review of issuances.
I am always saddened to read about these cases. When Americans are exposed as being corrupt, especially in countries where the embassy is always admonishing its host about corruption, it weakens US credibility.
By Peter Van Buren
CONSULAR WORK THE "˜LEAST RESPECTED'
The scale of this incident is large, but such fraud schemes are depressingly common. There was another big one recently that involved a Ukrainian criminal ring that was submitting phony applications for the diversity visa lottery.
It's hard to know what to do about it. There is somewhat more oversight than there used to be. The Department of Homeland Security, for instance, has deployed DHS officials to work alongside State Department consular officers in many embassies to try to add an extra layer of review for criminal or terrorism threats. It's known as the Visa Security Program. And the systems for checking visa applicants regarding security concerns have improved immensely since 9/11.
But fraud and corruption remain real problems each individual consular officer receives and approves or denies so many visa applications that there is no way to review these decisions regularly without bogging down the system. What we have instead are periodic reviews by the State Department inspector-general that only uncover these problems well after they have occurred.
I would like to see a greater professionalism introduced into the consular service. Consular duty is typically a first posting for a foreign service officer after they pass the exam and are accepted into the service.
Most do it for two or three years and then go on to diplomatic or economic posts. They are generally young and inexperienced and more vulnerable to this sort of corruption. The consular service is the least respected part of foreign service work, and as a result, the quality is not what it should be.
If consular work were given greater respect within the State Department (i.e. promoting career consular officers to Ambassadors and other top postings, which rarely happens currently) this could build a stronger esprit-de-corps, I believe, and would reduce these incidents of corruption.
I do think it's worth keeping in mind that, while many problems still exist, the US visa review process is vastly better than it used to be. Before 9/11, scrutiny of visa applicants was extremely minimal; for several years after 9/11, the scrutiny was so time-consuming that there were enormous backlogs and many people were effectively blocked from coming to the US.
The US government is much closer to getting that balance right, though challenges obviously remain.
By Edward Alden