Corrupt practices: U.S. visa-granting easily compromised

Fueled by the demand for tens of thousands of U.S. visas by Guyanese seeking to “temporarily” visit their families in the United States, and backed by family financial reserves from the already extensive emigre population in the United States (more than 400,000 Guyanese now live in New York), Carroll eagerly provided the supply — U.S. visas — for a considerable price.

The Thomas Carroll Affair by David Casavis is the first serious account of the Carroll visa sale scandal. It could not be more timely.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that it exposes the often sordid power relationships within the U.S. Department of State, and between the U.S. embassy staff and local nationals at foreign missions. The State Department is staffed by a corps of Foreign Service Officers — the State Department’s corps of U.S. citizens — professional bureaucrats  who are posted to U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. The FSO’s have all passed the U.S. Foreign Service Examination, undergone State Department training, and often view themselves as the Mandarin elite of U.S. foreign policy. Contrary to their self-perception, however, many FCOs seethe with petty bureaucratic resentment against their colleagues, especially those few who rise to a coveted ambassadorship. At the same time, especially in Third World postings, many FSOs hold the local populations, and the Foreign Service Nationals (FSN) — local country nationals employed by the U.S. State Department to do clerical and manual tasks at U.S. embassies — in utter contempt. It is an unhealthy brew.

Prior to 2001, the process of issuing U.S. visas ran through one, nearly unsupervised, critical choke point — the visa desks, manned by FSOs — at U.S. consulates abroad. The Visa Desk FSOs were vested with virtually absolute discretion, with no appeal to any court, to approve or deny a visa to a foreign national applicant. It is still common, at U.S. consulates abroad, for hundreds of applicants to line-up every day, often gathering before dawn, to wait hours to have their visa applications reviewed by an FSO. This gave the FSOs manning the Visa Desks tremendous power over the lives of the applicants.

In addition, the institutional structures of the State Department, and the traditions of the Foreign Service, combined to insulate FSOs from effective oversight and policing, allowing, even encouraging, misconduct in office. The first barrier, akin to the “blue wall” of police officers, is the sense of entitlement and immunity within the Foreign Service. Casavis labels this diplomatic world “the Bubble World” — the interior bureaucratic world of the U.S. Foreign Service — which resists all oversight from outside. Problems are to be solved internally, not by bringing outside review — and negative scrutiny and publicity — which could discredit all members of a U.S. diplomatic mission. This institutional defensiveness protected Carroll several times, such as when local Guyanese complained to the U.S. ambassador or other Embassy personnel about Carroll’s activities.

Equally glaring was the minimal oversight at the Visa Desk, and the tradition of shredding visa applications, once they were processed. When initial inquiries were made about Carroll, there was nothing to research since all his processed visa files were routinely destroyed. No one could easily prove that Carroll had routinely approved criminals or obvious economic migrants for U.S. visas, since there were no files to go back to. Carroll simply stated that he was doing everything properly, and any complaints were motivated by resentment against a veteran FSO just doing his job.

Finally, the internal policing by the State Department, through their Diplomatic Security, was equally weak. The arrival of a team from DS was quickly noted at U.S. diplomatic missions, and the instinct of mutual protection inside “the bubble world” worked to frustrate any serious inquiry or consequences. It is telling that despite the fact that small-scale visa selling was commonplace at U.S. embassies — with FSOs all over the world routinely taking gifts and sexual favors from local visa applicants or visa brokers — no FSO was ever prosecuted for visa fraud, until Thomas Carroll.

Carroll’s scheme differed from the petty favors and kick-backs, which had typified prior FSO visa fraud, mostly in scale. He took retail visa fraud and made it wholesale. Carroll’s fellow Georgetown FSO, Deborah Rhea, had given away U.S. visas in exchange for the “gift” of a new piano; and his former FSO colleague, Charles Parrish, the section chief at the U.S. embassy in Beijing, had dispensed U.S. visas in exchange for cash, and the sexual favors of young Chinese women. But Carroll transformed US visa sales into a mass business.

At its peak, Carroll’s scheme was generating well over $1,000,000.00 per month. Ironically, the very success of Carroll’s operation proved its downfall. In order to launder tens of millions of dollars, Carroll attempted to convert his local cash into gold. Guyana is a gold producing nation, with a steady stream of prospectors — “pork-knockers” in local parlance — bringing their diggings to the gold brokers of Georgetown. But rather than buy on the open market, which would attract attention, Carroll purchased gold only through selected gold brokers, and he was willing to pay a premium to launder his cash into gold. That premium undercut all the other gold brokers, who suddenly saw their own suppliers divert to supply Carroll. The money laundered by Carroll was thus distorting the local gold market. One of the rival gold brokers, Joe de Agrella, decided to investigate. He found that the money trail led right back to the U.S. embassy, and brought his complaint directly to the U.S. ambassador. Although he raised suspicions, even that was not enough to stop Carroll.

Carroll’s fatal error was confiding in Benedict Wolf, his scrupulously honest successor at the U.S. embassy, an FSO, who had once been a seminary student. Carroll sought to entice Wolf to continue the highly profitable visa sale enterprise after Carroll was posted back to the United States. Wolf taped Carroll outlining his visa sale schemes, and Carroll was finally arrested in 2000. At his home in Palos Hills, Illinois, just outside of Chicago, the FBI found millions in cash and ten gold bars hidden in safes and stashed in secret compartments. Carroll was convicted, but served only 3.5 years in prison. Most of the money was never recovered.

The Thomas Carroll Affair does an important service by bringing this obscure chapter to light. It is particularly relevant for highlighting the failure — even willful resistance — of the State Department to learn from its errors and institute serious visa scrutiny. That bureaucratic obduracy may have prevented a more thorough examination of the visa approval process at U.S. embassies. There is no way to tell whether such an examination would have prevented some of the 9/11 terrorists from gaining a visa to enter the United States – two or three of them were already on the U.S. intelligence community’s radar. Although the rest were not – but there is no doubt that the Thomas Carroll affair should have made the Department of State aware that the visa granting process was flawed and easily compromised.

The Thomas Carroll Affair does a commendable job in framing and building the story to its climax, but like many non-fiction books from self-publishing firms, this book is in desperate need of a sound editing and re-structuring.

Unfortunately, the book fails to ground or frame the story in the unique context of Guyana. Until haphazardly and inadequately, at the very end of the book, Casavis never gives readers the history or feel of the profoundly racially divided, Caribbean-flavored land that is Guyana. Dominated by two ethic groups — Afro-Guyanese (descended from slaves brought from Africa) who make up 35 percent of the population; and Indo-Guyanese (descended from contract workers from India brought in the late nineteenth century) who make up 50 percent of the population — Guyana has had a tragic post-colonial history. Following independence from Britain in 1966, the Afro-Guyanese leader Forbes Burnham and his Peoples National Congress (PNC) established a virtual dictatorship that only ended, after his death with U.S.-supervised free elections in 1992. Those elections put the mostly Indo-Guyanese Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) of Cheddi and Janet Jagan in power.

Casavis never mentions the fascinating fact that Janet Jagan, the president of Guyana during most of Carroll’s posting, was an American woman — originally Janet Rosenberg from Chicago — the first American woman head of state. Jagan, while a young woman, moved to Guyana in the 1940s with her new husband, Cheddi, and founded the PPP. Imbued with the heady Marxism of the late 1940s, the Jagans went on to dominate the Indo-Guyanese majority of the population, leading to the British and the Kennedy administration to install the Burnham dictatorship to keep them out of power.

This historical context is lacking, and would have provided some reference to the readers about the crime waves referred to repeatedly in the book. Those crime waves gripped Guyana during the first fifteen years after the 1992 elections, and pitted the new, mostly Indo-Guyanese, PPP government — and its mostly Afro-Guyanese police force — against heavily-armed criminal gangs, nearly all Afro-Guyanese. The gangs were closely affiliated with the opposition PNC, and often spearheaded violent street protests, assaults, and sabotage. The story of Guyana in the year 2000 was not that of a monolithic corrupt Third-World sinkhole, as shallowly portrayed in the book, but of a new democratic government struggling to rebuild after twenty-five years of dictatorship and struggling against criminal gangs sponsored by the opposition that had once been the core of that dictatorship.

A good editing would also have eliminated the often awkwardly repeated phrases, such as Casavis’s frequently repeated quote of the U.S. ambassador calling Carroll his “sweet young thing;” and the offensive use of inappropriate pejoratives, such as repeatedly spelling Deborah Rhea’s name as “Deb-oh-rah” to mimic and mock her over-enunciation of syllables, an annoying pose and manner of speaking sometimes assumed by older African-American women to flaunt their presumed erudition.

Despite its real flaws, The Thomas Carroll Affair is a valuable addition to the corpus of literature examining the conduct of the U.S. Department of State, with its bureaucratic blind spots, undeserved elitism, and serious failings which allowed criminals and, just months later, nineteen terrorists, to enter the United States.

Grant M. Lally is a contributing editor of the Homeland Security News Wire