WASHINGTION: The US State Department on Tuesday defended issuing a visa to an Egyptian extremist whose group is classified as terrorist, saying it hoped to reach out to new faces in a fast-changing region.
Conservative critics of President Barack Obama cried foul over the visa to Hani Nour Eldin, a newly elected lawmaker from the Gamaa Islamiyya, who met senior US officials as part of a delegation last week.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that while the United States bans entry to members of groups classified as terrorists, the administration can issue waivers if the visa is seen to be in US interests.
"We neither had then, nor do we have now, any reason to believe that this particular individual, who at the time of his application was a member of parliament, would pose a threat to the United States," Nuland told reporters.
Nuland pointed to rapid changes in the Middle East, where an extremist was declared the winner Sunday of Egypt's first democratic presidential elections a year and a half after street protests toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak.
"It's a new day in Egypt; it's a new day in a lot of countries across the Middle East and North Africa. So new political personalities are coming to light," Nuland said.
"We have more folks who want to come here, want to know us, want to learn about the United States, want to develop relationships with us. We have the same interest with regard to them," she said.
The United States has long designated Gamaa Islamiyya as a terrorist organization. Its spiritual chief, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, is jailed for life over the first bombing of New York's World Trade Center in 1993.
Gamaa Islamiyya members participated, along with members of Egyptian group Islamic Jihad, in the 1981 attack that killed then-president Anwar Sadat after his historic peace agreement with Israel.
The group also claimed responsibility for a devastating attack in Egypt's southern city of Luxor in 1997 that killed 62 people, most of them tourists.
But Eldin, in an interview with Newsweek magazine, said that he was not personally involved in violence and had been jailed under Mubarak for political reasons.
Representative Peter King, a Republican who heads the House Committee on Homeland Security and has chaired controversial hearings on Islamic extremism in the United States, has demanded answers over Eldin's visa.
In a letter Sunday to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, King said that there could be legitimate reasons to issue a visa to a member of a designated terrorist group, such as to advance peace negotiations.
"However, the nature of Eldin's visit suggests an absence of full vetting rather than a policy choice, or perhaps a breakdown in the screening missions of and coordination among our Federal agencies," King said.
Nuland said on Tuesday that the State Department conducted a "careful review" and "concluded that the appropriate procedures were followed."
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