Page 42 - Foreign Service Journal - June, 2010

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40 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U N E 2 0 1 0

which the State Department did not revoke even after his father pre-sented himself at the U.S. embassy in Abuja to warn that his son had fallen in with Yemeni radicals. Once again the consular service finds itself in the crosshairs of some in Con-gress who question its ability to keep out those who might harm the United States (see p. 42) .

Consular work is not what most people have in mind when they sign on for a State Department career. Stamp-ing visas is the traditional first job for entry-level Foreign Service generalists, after which most non-consular officers escape to more rewarding economic or political work. Larry Wilkerson, who was Sec. Powell’s chief of staff, calls the mandatory consular service “a colossal drain on morale. We lose a lot of Foreign Service officers in their first two or three years because they can’t stand it.”

A Commitment to Service

But for some officers, consular work becomes a calling. And none had dedicated themselves more fully thanMary Ryan. Friends said Ryan devoted her life to two things: God and the State Department. She studied theology at Trinity University and attended church every day of her working life in Washington.

On the morning of the 9/11 attacks, she was in Charleston, S.C., with Frank Moss, one of her deputies, for a conference on passport management. They rented a car for the 450-mile drive back to Washington because U.S. airspace had been closed to commercial traffic. Ryan was especially worried about a nephew who regularly rode the PATH train that ran under the World Trade Center towers. “I swear she reduced a set of rosary beads to dust,” Moss said.

If God was her touchstone, the State Department was her life. At the time of the terrorist attacks, she was the longest-serving official in the department, and only the second woman in its history to be named a career ambas-sador. For many young consular officers, she was a role model. “If you were in the service a minute less time than Mary, she was your mentor,” saidMaura Harty, who would replace her as assistant secretary.

Ryan had joined the Foreign Service with a posting in Naples in 1966, and from there she rotated assignments in Washington, D.C., Honduras, Mexico and several

African countries, finally being named ambassador to Swaziland in 1988. She was tapped by President Bill Clinton as assistant secretary for consular services in 1993. Ryan inherited responsibility for CA at one of the most challenging junctures in its history. From 1993 to 2001, the number of non-immi-grant visa applications grew from seven million each year to more than 10 million, and the demand for U.S. pass-ports doubled. Yet budget constraints cut staffing sharply. “The motto in the department in the 1990s was ‘Do more with less’, to the extent that it seemed to me we were ex-pected to do everything with nothing,” Ryan would later tell the 9/11 Commission.

At the same time, some officials were awakening to the growing threat posed by Islamic extremists. In February 1993, just three months before Ryan took up her posting, a huge truck bomb was detonated beneath the World Trade Center towers, killing six people, injuring a thou-sand more and ripping a massive seven-story hole in the buildings.

For the State Department, the attack revealed serious weaknesses in its visa-granting procedures. The spiritual leader of the bombers, the “blind sheik” Omar Abdel-Rahman, had obtained a visa from the U.S. embassy in Sudan, a country which at the time was harboring al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Rahman was known to U.S. intelligence for radical ac-tivities in Egypt, and his name had been placed on State’s terrorist watch list. But when Rahman applied for a visa in 1990, a local hire in Khartoum failed to check the mi-crofiche watch list, and then lied to the consular officer by telling him the check had been done. The embassy in Sudan was further unaware that its counterpart in Egypt had just issued a warning regarding Rahman’s intention to try to enter the United States. It was an appalling fail-ure all around.

Troubled by such mistakes, Ryan made it one of her primary goals to build a computerized name check system whose integrity would not be subject to the whims of local officials. In doing so, she and her officials were far ahead of their time. While State would later be pilloried as soft on terrorism, the department had actually created the gov-ernment’s first terrorist watch list in 1987, known as TIPOFF. It was designed by a career employee at the Bu-


Friends said Mary Ryan devoted her life to two things:

God and the State Department.

Page 42 - Foreign Service Journal - June, 2010

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