In this email message to colleagues, Israeli cryptographer Adi Shamir recounts the difficulties he faced in getting a visa to attend the 2013 Cryptologic History Symposium sponsored by the National Security Agency. Adi Shamir is the “S” in the RSA public-key algorithm and is “one of the finest cryptologists in the world today,” according to historian David Kahn. The NSA Symposium begins tomorrow. For the reasons described below, Dr. Shamir will not be there.
From: Adi Shamir
Date: October 15, 2013 12:16:28 AM EDT
Subject: A personal apology
The purpose of this email is to explain why I will not be able to attend the forthcoming meeting of the History of Cryptology conference, even though I submitted a paper which was formally accepted. As an active participant in the exciting developments in academic cryptography in the last 35 years, I thought that it would be a wonderful opportunity to meet all of you, but unfortunately the US bureaucracy has made this impossible.
The story is too long to describe in detail, so I will only provide its main highlights here. I planned to visit the US for several months, in order to attend the Crypto 2013 conference, the History of Cryptology conference, and to visit several universities and research institutes in between in order to meet colleagues and give scientific lectures. To do all of these, I needed a new J1 visa, and I filed the visa application at the beginning of June, two and a half months before my planned departure to the Crypto conference in mid August. I applied so early since it was really important for me to attend the Crypto conference – I was one of the founders of this flagship annual academic event (I actually gave the opening talk in the first session of the first meeting of this conference in 1981) and I did my best to attend all its meetings in the last 32 years.
To make a long story short, after applying some pressure and pulling a lot of strings, I finally got the visa stamped in my passport on September 30-th, exactly four months after filing my application, and way beyond the requested start date of my visit. I was lucky in some sense, since on the next day the US government went into shutdown, and I have no idea how this could have affected my case. Needless to say, the long uncertainty had put all my travel plans (flights, accommodations, lecture commitments, etc) into total disarray.
It turns out that I am not alone, and many foreign scientists are now facing the same situation. Here is what the president of the Weizmann Institute of Science (where I work in Israel) wrote in July 2013 to the US Ambassador in Israel:
“I’m allowing myself to write you again, on the same topic, and related to the major difficulties the scientists of the Weizmann Institute of Science are experiencing in order to get Visa to the US. In my humble opinion, we are heading toward a disaster, and I have heard many people, among them our top scientists, saying that they are not willing anymore to visit the US, and collaborate with American scientists, because of the difficulties. It is clear that scientists have been singled out, since I hear that other ‘simple citizen’, do get their visa in a short time.”
Even the president of the US National Academy of Science (of which I am a member) tried to intervene, without results. He was very sympathetic, writing to me at some stage:
“Dear Professor Shamir
I have been hoping, day by day, that your visa had come through. It is very disappointing to receive your latest report. We continue to try by seeking extra attention from the U. S. Department of State, which has the sole authority in these matters. As you know, the officers of the Department of State in embassies around the world also have much authority. I am personally very sympathetic and hopeful that your efforts and patience will still yield results but also realize that this episode has been very trying. We hope to hear of a last-minute success.
Yours sincerely, Ralph J. Cicerone”
What does all of this have to do with the History of Cryptology conference? In January 2013 I submitted a paper titled “The Cryptology of John Nash From a Modern Perspective” to the conference, and a short time afterwards I was told by the organizers that it was accepted. In July 2013 I told the NSA-affiliated conference organizers that I was having some problems in getting my visa, and gently asked whether they could do something about it. Always eager to help, the NSA people leaped into action, and immediately sent me a short email written with a lot of tact:
“The trouble you are having is regrettable…Sorry you won’t be able to come to our conference. We have submitted our program and did not include you on it.”
I must admit that in my 35 years of attending many conferences, it had never happened to me that an accepted paper of mine was yanked out from the official program in such a unilateral way. However, since I never try to go to places where I do not feel wanted, I decided to inform MIT that a window had become available in my busy schedule. They immediately invited me to visit them on October 17 and 18, and to give a major lecture during my visit. Naturally, I accepted their gracious invitation.
The final twist in this saga happened a few days ago, when out of the blue I was suddenly reinvited by the conference organizers to attend the event and to present my paper. However, this is too late now, since I am already fully committed to my visit to MIT.
So what is the bottom line of this whole unhappy episode? Clearly, no one in the US is trying to see the big picture, and the heavy handed visa bureaucracy you have created seems to be collapsing under its own weight. This is not a security issue – I have been to the US close to a hundred times so far (including some multi-year visits), and had never overstayed my visas. In addition, the number of terrorists among the members of the US National Academy of Science is rather small. As a friend of the US I am deeply worried that if you continue to delay visas in such a way, the only thing you will achieve is to alienate many world-famous foreign scientists, forcing them to increase their cooperation with European or Chinese scientists whose countries roll the red carpet for such visits. Is this really in the US best interest?
Best personal wishes, and apologies for not being able to meet you in person,