DS Could Advance Overseas Visa and Passport Security

Diplomatic Security programs can help protect the United States from the threat of terrorist entry, but the State Department hasn’t promoted DS as the interagency lead.


Obedience is not patriotism. History has shown that dissent is central to any democracy and to the sustainability of a healthy and productive organizational culture. The State Department is unique in having a formal avenue to express an alternative view without fear or frustration. The importance the department has historically placed on the value of dissenting opinions speaks to the ideal of fairness; regardless of political affiliation, beliefs or bureau represented, freedom to express your opinion remains a core value, and is a State Department tradition that must be preserved.

President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27, 2017, Executive Order, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” started a nationwide conversation about protecting our borders. The Dissent Channel cable I sent immediately afterward, “Empower and Promote Diplomatic Security to Achieve Its Visa and Passport Security Program Mandate Overseas,” specifically focused on the State Department’s implementation of policies mandated by 22 U.S. Code 4802 and 4807. These laws cover the responsibility of the Secretary of State for conducting investigations relating to illegal passport and visa issuance or use, and for establishing a Visa and Passport Security Program in the Department of State.

I did not discuss the travel restrictions coupled with the president’s E.O., because my intent was to address the order’s objectives rather than the more controversial implementation methods. Many in the State Department rightfully focused on the ideal of fairness; my approach was to propose solutions based on best practices to achieve the order’s stated aims.

The E.O. vs. Current Practices

The language of the executive order directly reflects the mission statement of the Diplomatic Security Overseas Criminal Investigation program (OCI). For instance, the E.O. states its purpose thus: “to identify individuals seeking to enter the United States on a fraudulent basis with the intent to cause harm, or who are at risk of causing harm subsequent to their admission.” The order further speaks to the importance of in-person interviews and databases of identity documents, along with the problems of duplicated documents, evaluating criminal intent and similar issues.

The DS Visa and Passport Security Strategic Plan presented to Congress in 2006 called for the aggressive expansion of this OCI initiative to meet three specific, strategic goals: defending the homeland and foreign partners from terrorist attack through aggressive and coordinated international law enforcement action; detecting terrorist activity, methods and trends that exploit international travel vulnerabilities; and disrupting terrorist efforts to use fraudulent documents by strengthening the capacities of foreign partners.

OCI has already laid the foundation to achieve and produce much of the desired information and capabilities outlined in the E.O. via the overseas Assistant Regional Security Office for Investigations (ARSO-I) program, which is embedded in consular sections worldwide. OCI has also made significant contributions to other White House priorities, such as the disruption of transnational criminal organizations involved in human trafficking and smuggling of people, including special-interest aliens.

The State Department agreed that it may be time to update the 2006 Visa and Passport Security Strategic Plan.


My Dissent Channel message contained a number of recommendations: setting up a Visa Security Task Force Pilot Program, led by DS, with established reporting requirements to identify country-specific threats to visa security; mandating and supporting the establishment of ARSO-I—vetted host-nation law enforcement units in strategic locations; increasing the amount of fraudulent document identification and impostor detection training and providing an independent (non-Leahy) funding source for document inspection equipment that can be easily donated to host-nation officials; re-negotiating existing agreements with other U.S. law enforcement agencies to increase the amount of law enforcement information shared with consular officers for use in the adjudication process; and expanding DS headquarters’ analytical support for the ARSO-I program to cover open source analysis and social media exploitation of specified applicants.

Pres. Trump’s executive order stated his desire to increase the U.S. government’s ability to apply additional screening to visa applicants by using information known to the respective host country to assess an applicant’s intent. However, the majority of these countries do not track or cannot produce records in a suitable format. In addition, identifying an individual’s intent is complicated by cultural differences and a lack of context. Moreover, the lack of automation and advanced internet services throughout most of the world, including the countries identified in the order, is exactly why the State Department needs to leverage and promote the expertise of DS—specifically its implementation of vetted host-nation units—as a matter of policy.

The Department Response

The Diplomatic Security Bureau’s leadership used some of these recommendations as talking points during working group sessions with the Bureau of Consular Affairs. DS also used some of them when meeting with officials from the National Security Council to discuss future visa security initiatives.

The State Department’s response was DS-centric rather than department-centric, and was in line with requirements outlined in the Foreign Affairs Manual. It also directly or indirectly addressed the majority of topics I raised in my cable. The department acknowledged that DS plays a leading role in the State Department in implementing visa security initiatives, and outlined the many proactive steps DS is taking to increase its international footprint and law enforcement actions under the ARSO-I program. The department also agreed that it may be time to update the 2006 Visa and Passport Security Strategic Plan.

The department did not, however, address the underlying issue that causes DS to be undervalued and frequently unrecognized within the broader interagency community for its work to protect the integrity of the global visa security program. The department’s response highlighted DS-specific initiatives within the context of what DS is trying to achieve as a single bureau negotiating and competing with large domestic agencies.

The idea of promoting DS to the interagency community as the lead for overseas visa passport security is still a bridge too far.

Unlike other bureaus, DS does not wield influential command of the department, especially pertaining to visa security and law enforcement matters within the interagency community. DS strategic initiatives in terms of visa and passport security measures and law enforcement action have not been fully adopted, understood or supported by the State Department.

The point of my dissent was to show that the department does not empower or promote DS to achieve its Visa and Passport Security Strategic Plan. In responding, the department supported my overall belief that it appreciates the contributions DS makes to the U.S. government’s visa and passport security and law enforcement programs, and will approve the expansion of the ARSO-I program in support of these initiatives.

However, it seems that the State Department is still not ready to use its influence to raise DS’s stature within the law enforcement community. The idea of promoting DS to the interagency community as the lead for overseas visa passport security is still a bridge too far, and may result in overseas visa and passport security initiatives being completely outsourced to a third-party agency.

Lessons Learned

Perception and perspective are critical components to consciously weigh when forming and distributing an opinion. Everyone handles contradictory information differently, and possesses an instinctive and often emotional bias that can distort the way an author’s message is received. In addition, the importance of “framing,” and the effect it has on how a message is interpreted, cannot be overstated.

Elzar T. Camper is the 2017 recipient of the F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for Constructive Dissent by a Foreign Service Specialist. Mr. Camper has served in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Washington Field Office, as branch chief of operational threats and analysis at Diplomatic Security headquarters, and overseas in Karachi, Cairo and Kabul. Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Mr. Camper earned a B.S. degree in criminal justice with a minor in computer science from West Chester University of Pennsylvania in 2005. He also earned master’s degrees in software engineering and information science from Pennsylvania State University in 2012 and 2008, respectively.

This article is based solely on the author’s opinion, is written from his perspective and does not represent the views of the U.S. government. The author acknowledges that he is not an expert in the complexities and potential legal and bureaucratic hurdles that exist, in any current Diplomatic Security–Consular Affairs negotiations or in broader U.S. government initiatives.