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Archive for Thursday, August 22, 2002

Counterterror officials want to halt shredding of visa applications

August 22, 2002

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— Despite a post-Sept. 11 emphasis on sharing information, the government each year deliberately shreds millions of unsuccessful immigration applications containing personal details and photographs that some officials say could help in the war against terrorism.

Many applicants are from countries the U.S. government considers sponsors or harborers of terrorists, officials said.

Senior counterterrorism and law enforcement officials say they were unaware of the State Department's practice and believe the information should be preserved for potential use in terrorism investigations. Immigration lawyers, however, are worried about the privacy implications.

"All the people in homeland security should eventually have the capacity to sift through these," said Rep. George Gekas, R-Pa., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee.

State Department officials say they have been using high-speed shredders in Kentucky they call "Igor One" and "Igor Two" to destroy the records of immigrants who fail to win entry to the United States after applying through a special visa lottery system.

Millions across the globe apply, but only about 50,000 are picked randomly each year. Each one-page application includes the person's name, photograph, current address and place of birth, as well as the same information and photographs for all immediate family members. Winning applicants are asked further about the dates and locations of any schools or jobs.

Applications from the 50,000 winners each year are retained and checked against lists of terror suspects and known criminals.

The rest of the applications the overwhelming majority are destroyed under the State Department's rules for the 1990-era Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery.

Ed Dickens, a spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs that runs the program, said the State Department would be willing to change its rules to share all the forms with the FBI and the CIA.

"We'd be happy to mail them to the CIA if they wanted," Dickens said. "They're not of particular use to us."

Law enforcement and counterterrorism officials told about the shredding by The Associated Press said they could see an investigative use for the information.

In the most recent lottery, the government received 8.7 million applications. It awarded visas to citizens of the seven countries the United States considers state sponsors of terrorism Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria and Yemen as well as Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan, plus 178 other countries.

A top Bush administration counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he found the destruction of applications "very shocking."

The official said the documents would be useful to investigators tracing biographical information about people living overseas who are trying to enter the United States.

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