A Visa To Snitch

U.S. visa holders should be required to disclose what they know about potential threats.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

In the aftermath of the attempted Christmas Day and the Times Square bombings, much of the political debate surrounded what should happen to suspects after such attempts. The dispute primarily focused on whether the failed Times Square and Christmas Day bombers should have been Mirandized and on how harshly they should have been interrogated. But most of this debate is missing the point.

The common thread in the Times Square terrorist attempt by the Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad and the attempted Christmas Day bombing by a Nigerian national, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is not that they needed to be interrogated more harshly after the attacks. Both men are linked by the visas they received that allowed them easy access to the United States. Prior to obtaining citizenship, Shahzad received a series of student and work visas that typically involve at least cursory background checks. Abdulmutallab, for his part, possessed a multiple-year visitor visa. Yet both Abdulmutallab and Shahzad had given family and friends ample reason to suspect that they wished harm on America. So how is it that both men remained well under the radar until after they attempted their potentially deadly bombings?

In part, the problem lies in the ways we collect information about visa applicants. While we’ve focused in recent weeks on the “back door” problem of undocumented workers crossing America’s southern border, we’ve failed to acknowledge that this nation has a real visa problem at the “front door.” We are in the absurd position of green-lighting elite aliens, following minimal background checks that do not involve references from their closely-knit familial, professional, and business networks. And even though these networks are far better placed than our government to access information about their members, for the most part we don’t bother to ask for or scrutinize the information they might provide.

To remedy this problem, Washington should leverage its coveted visas by imposing an explicit requirement on U.S. visa holders to snitch on their associates who may pose a danger to America. The authorities should particularly focus on members of the global elite—that circle of persons most likely to be granted a U.S. visa who sit atop the pyramid of their countries through educational achievement or family networks, and who work and reside within one degree of one another. What does this mean in practice? In the event that visa holders are later found to have failed to share critical information which could have prevented a terrorist attack, and which they had reason to know, the penalty should be the withdrawal of visas.

That’s right, I’m proposing that in exchange for a U.S. visa, you inherit a legal duty to snitch. While this requirement would attach to all visas, its primary benefit would be to incentivize global elites to come forward with suspicions about their family members and friends. Why focus on the well-connected and wealthy? The government and independent experts insist that terrorist groups are difficult to pinpoint and nearly impossible for outsiders to penetrate. Yet it’s clear that these networks rely in part upon the elite and the mobile to populate their leadership. Osama Bin Laden, from a wealthy family at the apex of Saudi society, is of course the most famous example. Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, is from a prominent clan of Egyptian scholars. Terrorist networks also recruit elites particularly when they need bombers who are mobile. The paradigmatic case is that of Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 bomber who received a U.S. visitor visa. He had previously earned an elite architecture degree in Egypt, further qualifying for advanced training in Germany.

Like Atta, Shahzad and Abdulmutallab’s enhanced mobility derived directly from their membership in the global elite. While Shahzad’s mediocre academic background might raise questions about his status as a member of any elite, there is little question that like Abdulmutallab, his family connections show him to be privileged and well-connected. The range of U.S. student and work visas Shahzad obtained would make him the envy of the ordinary Pakistani, for whom the stringent documentary requirements for American visas are typically prohibitive. Similarly, while Abdulmutallab’s visitor visa would in principle be available to any law-abiding Nigerian citizen who is not an overstay risk, in practice, only tiny minorities of Nigerians apply for and receive such visas. The dynamic is replicated in nations from Egypt to Guatemala. Unsurprisingly, visa recipients from most developing countries are disproportionately likely to be wealthy or well-connected.

If all U.S. visas came with a duty to snitch, this class of foreigners would have a strong incentive to come forward with any information that might be helpful to U.S. anti-terrorism officials. Consider, for instance, the behavior of Abdulmutallab’s father, who was sufficiently disturbed by his son’s repeated trips to Yemen—an atypical destination for young Nigerians—that he repeatedly alerted the U.S. authorities to his son’s anti-Americanism. The elder Mutallab, a well-known banker and U.S. visa holder himself, was the only one to report his son, even though a much broader circle of family and friends noticed young Mutallab’s disturbing radicalism. In one sense, this silence is understandable. Diverse cultural histories since the time of Judas exude a deep ambivalence toward those members of a small community who “snitch.” But against this prevailing wisdom, the interests of the United States and the elder Mutallab converged.

While motives are notoriously difficult to ascertain, it is important to consider the elder Mutallab’s potential reasons for coming forward—precisely because we hope to create incentives for similar behavior in others. In a departure from traditional accounts, I suggest strategic reasons that might have led the elder Mutallab to assume the role of “snitch” with regard to his own son. As an elite banker, the elder Mutallab could hardly afford to be facing suspicion by the U.S. authorities—he is necessarily dependent on global mobility to conduct his business. By reporting his son’s behavior, not only did he seek to preserve his son’s life. In the event of a terrorist attack, he would have preemptively signaled “which side he was on,” thus preserving his future mobility and, by extension, his livelihood. By articulating a duty to snitch, the United States would essentially be creating incentives for the family and friends of would-be terrorists to be as strategic as the elder Mutallab. An obligation to snitch would make explicit what the elder Mutallab understood implicitly, thus essentially codifying behavior that will help thwart terrorism.

Contrast the actions of Mutallab’s father with those of Shahzad’s family and friends. Several members of Shahzad’s network, including his father—a retired high-ranking member of the Pakistani military—noticed his increasing radicalism. And yet no one appears to have alerted the authorities. Subsequent reporting has made clear that several members of Shahzad’s Pakistani network are not unlike the members of Abdulmutallab’s Nigerian network—comprised of elites who routinely travel, work, and study in the United States. Had a duty to snitch existed, these members of Shahzad’s extended network would have faced a choice between coming forward with information and losing their access to the United States.

With visa access to this country should come special responsibilities. For mobile global citizens, an appropriate penalty for a failure to police one’s network would be a loss of access to American soil. Not only are visas status-conveyers, their loss may undermine business and educational opportunities dear to global elites. Indeed, targeted visa revocations of perceived-Communist elites in the height of the Cold War (with arguably unjust consequences for some academics and artists) indicate that the United States has long been strategic about handing out visas when foreign-policy goals are at stake. Immigration policymakers should be similarly strategic in utilizing visa revocations to leverage elite networks to generate early warning signals when members display terrorist sympathies.

As a former recipient of coveted visas, I came only reluctantly to this view. Criminal justice scholars have pointed out that “snitching” is a double-edged sword; pressuring persons to snitch may undermine the communal trust on which law enforcement depends. But given the high stakes in the terrorism context, mandatory information-sharing seems reasonable, narrow, and targeted, particularly since the aliens in question are disproportionately likely to be elites who can always choose to forgo shopping in Manhattan or Miami. Indeed, this proposal is reasonable in relation to other proposals being mooted such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s plan for the revocation of citizenship (as opposed to visas), which seem to overreach.

Moreover, although we might think that encouraging international elites to snitch on their loved ones is excessive, the case of the elder Mutallab is again instructive. He earned a statement of praise from the Nigerian government and a sigh of relief from the Nigerian press, who could more easily classify the younger Mutallab as “not one of us.” If the Nigerian blogosphere is any guide, the elder Mutallab’s decision has come to be viewed as a pre-emptive mechanism of honor restoration for his family and his nation, and indeed, for every traveler from Nigeria subject to intrusive screening in the days after the Christmas Day terrorist attempt. There may potentially be more father Mutallabs who are willing to share information given the appropriate incentives. By articulating a duty to snitch, the United States can nudge them in the right direction.

In the words of the old wives’ tale, prevention is always better than cure. Congress should help ensure that the Shahzads of the world never gain visas in the first place. Shahzad’s elite background made the Times Square bombing attempt easier. That same elite status associated with so many would-be terrorists should be exploited to advance America’s own security, by deploying the important lever of visas to elicit critical information from their peers.

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