Memo to Tom Ridge: Thanks, really, but fix the bloody visa approval problem. Now.

Inside the Bunker in the Silicon Hutong
Let me start by complimenting the dedicated men and women in the various divisions of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Created out of nothing 36 months ago, these people have a thankless, almost impossible task: building a wall around the U.S.A. to keep terrorists out.

But the denial by the Immigration authorities under the DHS of visas to 3 key members of a Chinese delegation to a WLAN conference is just plain wrong. We could dismiss this as a horrible mistake perpetrated by well-meaning but over-enthusiastic consular officials. But I think that might be a bit simplistic.

This incident is not isolated: it is the latest in a long string of visa denials to Chinese nationals that is gradually sapping the ability of U.S. companies to do business in China. The visibility of this mistake makes it clear that something is fundamentally broken in the system that governs visa applications and processes, and that needs to be fixed. NOW.

What’s at stake? Well, let’s look at this one incident.

Getting the Chinese to the table to participate in the creation of global standards around wireless LANs (rather than creating needlessly disruptive national standards that gratuitously deviated from global norms) required over a year of concerted effort and letters of protest from Colin Powell and the White House. China’s agreement last April to play by global rules was a huge step forward for China and for the industry – and was a huge boost to Intel, Cisco, and a dozen U.S. companies.

Now that we have these guys at the table, we stop them at the door and say “sorry. Can’t come in. No reason given.”

From here in the Hutong, it looks a lot like the Americans are playing games.

Political meddling in regulatory and administrative processes is a bad M.O. for any government. That said, I’m delighted that I wasn’t within the blast radius when Craig Barrett, John Chambers, and Colin Powell heard about this. These men are going to be sharpening their knives for some poor bureaucrat’s head.

But the problem is not bad aparatchiks: it’s lousy procedure. And we American businessmen have stood by far too long and accepted the “tough s***” attitude Immigration officials adopt when we try to explain that they are shooting American business in the kneecaps by doing this.

Great job, DHS. But really – this is a problem. Fix it before the backlash gets so huge it hampers your ability to do your main job: protect Americans.