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Official: Powell angry over visa plan

From Suzanne Malveaux and Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Secretary of State Colin Powell reacted angrily to a proposal to strip his department of its power over visa applications and give it to the proposed Department of Homeland Security, a senior administration official told CNN Monday.

The official said Powell angrily called Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge late Sunday to voice his strong opposition to the plan.

The issue has the potential of causing "a very big rift between Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell," the senior official told CNN. "... This is a very big deal."

Two State Department officials called the senior official's account "exaggerated," but said Powell was concerned about a total restructuring of the visa application process and how it would affect the State Department's authority to conduct foreign policy.

"There are issues with getting it right," one senior State Department official said. "We always shared the visa function with the attorney general, and the secretary understands we are going to share some of it with the new agency."

The official said the State Department was focused on how to satisfy the new security requirements and serve foreign policy at the same time.

He said the State Department was most concerned about consular officers maintaining the "issuance" function of the visa process, and was aware it would have to share legal authority and decision-making on who gets a visa.

"We want to keep doing this. ... It's an essential part of our foreign policy," the official said.

"For many foreigners this face-to-face contact with a consular officer while applying for a visa is the only contact they will ever have with America. The whole handling of the visas internationally is very important."

"Clearly he is concerned," another senior official said of Powell. "But it is less about the chain of command than about authority."

The official said the secretary's concerns center around the "disruption to a process that the secretary feels has always worked well."

"We don't want to dilute our ability," the official said. "The processes have served us well in the past."

The official said that a lot of the nuts and bolts about the new Department of Homeland Security was presented to Powell and "already agreed to" before the president rolled out the new agency.

But he said the "role and responsibilities" of the new agency "is still an issue in discussion."

"As conversations have progressed there has been a sense that the new department wants a bigger role, but we still don't know how it will play out" the official said.

"Nobody wants to see their piece of the world taken from them, but I wouldn't say the secretary was highly upset."

Spokesman Gordon Johndroe of the White House Office of Homeland Security downplayed any tension between the office and the State Department on the issue, saying the secretary of state would remain "the primary foreign policy official."

He said the formation of a Homeland Security Department would not change the current situation in which the Justice Department and State Department share the responsibilities in granting visas.

"The only change would be transferring the legal authority of the Immigration and Naturalization Services from the Justice Department to the Homeland Security Department," Johndroe said.

Although visa cases would be under the purview of the newly created department, he insisted that the reassignment would not strip Powell of his power to carry out foreign policy as arbiter of visa adjudication.

Powell was at the White House Monday for a weekly meeting with the president and was expected to meet with Ridge later in the day.

The senior administration official said Powell was expected to argue that if the Department of Homeland Security becomes the primary arbiter of how the United States issues visas:

-- The secretary of state would no longer have command of employees of the State Department -- including American embassy and Foreign Service personnel -- thereby dissolving the current chain of command.

-- There would be conflicting information and guidelines for the visa adjudication policy.

-- The secretary of state's ability to set foreign policy would be limited.

In addition, the senior official said that other nations -- aware that the State Department would not have the ability to grant or reject entry into the United States -- might choose to diminish the role of American ambassadors.

For example, the official said, the State Department grants a certain number of visas to China as part of the U.S. policy of engagement with that country. To remove that function from the State Department could strip its ability to shape international policy in the region.

The conflict is one of several turf battles expected to pop up as details are revealed on Bush's proposal to consolidate a variety of functions in the new department.




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