In a letter to Mrs. Clinton, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa decried the slow pace of setting up visa-security units — only at 14 of more than 220 U.S. missions abroad so far - and blamed the State Department for putting "roadblocks" to efforts by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to boost its presence at several consulates.
"At this rate, it would take over 20 years to establish [visa-security units] in the approximately 40 posts that DHS has identified as high-risk," Mr. Grassley wrote.
"This is completely unacceptable, especially in light of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day," he said. "Implementation of the [visa-security units] has hardly progressed at all. There isn't one in London, where Abdulmutallab was issued his visa, or in Nigeria, where his father went to warn U.S. officials" about his ties to al Qaeda in Yemen.
Congress directed DHS when it was established in 2002 to create the units in question to help State Department consular officers abroad in screening visa applicants. Mr. Grassley called them vital for "shoring up one of America's first lines of defense against foreign terrorist attacks."
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., there were calls in Congress for the State Department to be stripped of its visa-issuing responsibilities, but the secretary of state at the time, Colin L. Powell, managed to keep that function in his agency. The visa-security units were created as a compromise.
Mr. Grassley, who is ranking member on the Finance Committee, had previously written on the same matter to Mrs. Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, but had "not received a substantive response."
"It has been reported to my office that the slow pace of implementation has been due to objections and roadblocks from the State Department," his letter to Mrs. Clinton said. "Specifically, over the last few years DHS encountered resistance from ambassadors in attempting to establish [units] in Kuala Lumpur, London, Nairobi, Istanbul and Kuwait City. It is extremely troubling that an ambassador can inhibit the ability of DHS in carrying out its mission."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed Monday that there are 14 visa-security units in 12 countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Egypt and Venezuela, but he rejected Mr. Grassley's accusations.
"We have cooperated fully with DHS in terms of the development of the Visa Security Program and the establishment of visa-security units," he told reporters. "I know of no obstacles that the State Department has put forward to prevent DHS from adding security units to various locations."
Asked if the department had a problem adding units in other countries, he said: "Conceptually, no."
A 2008 report on the units by the DHS inspector-general cited some budget restraints to expanding the program, but it also said that "chiefs of mission at some posts have resisted" the creation of new units.
As part of the reason for their resistance, the report said the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs "had seen few examples of [visa-security units] personnel providing expert advice and training on specific security threats." In addition, it "questioned the extent to which" special agents assigned to units "have expertise or training in counterterrorism."
It was not clear Monday whether that disagreement between the Departments of State and Homeland Security continues in the Obama administration — nor whether Mrs. Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had done anything to resolve the differences.
The Washington Times reported Monday that U.S. visa-revocation procedures broke down in a welter of interagency uncertainty in the Abdulmutallab case, which led to letting the Nigerian Islamist known to U.S. intelligence board a flight from Amsterdam on Dec. 25.
While some critics blame the State Department, which has full authority to cancel visas without permission from other agencies, others say the intelligence community should have recommended revocation based on information it had — but the State Department did not.
Administration officials said the embassy in Nigeria, where Mr. Abdulmutallab's father reported his links to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in November, failed to check whether he had a valid U.S. visa, and to include that information in the message it sent to Washington.
Mr. Abdulmutallab's latest visa was issued by the embassy in London, where he studied in 2008, but he had a previous visa issued in Nigeria in 2006.
At the time he applied for his visas, he was subjected to the strict rules and requirements implemented after the Sept. 11 attacks, but there was no information linking him to terrorist groups, so his applications were approved, officials said.
They also said the National Counterterrorism Center, which did not recommend that the State Department revoke Mr. Abdulmutallab's visa, classified him as a "possible terrorist."
"Please explain why classification as a 'possible terrorist' should not disqualify a foreign national from traveling to the United States," Mr. Grassley wrote to Mrs. Clinton.