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Instead of prosecuting Barbosa, agency officials transferred him from the airport to the district office, where he now works in the citizenship division, says John Shewairy, the INS's Florida chief of staff. Shewairy acknowledges that El Reda obtained the sensitive documents but defends the supervisor. "Barbosa was transferred as a result of this incident, but there was no criminal act committed, and there was no proof that he gave documents to anyone," Shewairy insists, adding that information from watch lists isn't secret or classified. "Mr. Barbosa was responsible for making sure the documents were held secure, and that did not happen, and he was held accountable."
Shewairy says Barbosa's alleged apology to El Reda and Bazzi for the "grave mistake" was never an INS concern. "If he apologized, what's wrong with that?" Shewairy asks. "Why can't you be professional in what you do? I don't know if he apologized, and I don't care."
Shewairy also contradicts Gonzalez, saying the couple had proper travel documents, not stolen passports. The real story, he contends, is that the INS did its job and kept two suspected terrorists out of the United States. "This was a classic example of the system working as it should," Shewairy says.
Former State Department official Richard Krieger vehemently disagrees with that assessment. "First, they should have investigated them further," he says. "They should have made every effort to find out what was going on with them and not released them in less than 24 hours, let alone give them sensitive documents. That is egregious. [Barbosa] should have been prosecuted or, at the very least, barred from ever working for the government again."
Krieger also says he's appalled that the suspected terrorists were deported on a commercial jetliner without federal escorts. In all, he concludes, it's one of the worst cases of investigative ineptitude he's seen. But Alger says the lenient treatment of Barbosa doesn't surprise him. "Laws were ignored by INS at the airport every day," reports the former immigration official.
Gonzalez adds that Barbosa's continuing employment with the INS is an example of the agency's protecting its supervisors -- even when national security is at stake.
INS agents nabbed Mohammed Abass Malik in Los Angeles in August 2000. But immigration charges filed against him (which are not public) were only a pretext for something much more serious: Malik, a Pakistani, was wanted for questioning by Argentine government officials in the 1992 Israeli Embassy bombing in Buenos Aires. Argentine court documents imply that Malik was spotted near the building "instants before" the bombing.
After detaining Malik, federal agents questioned him about the bombing in the presence of Argentine officials, says INS spokesman Russ Bergeron. Following that interview, "the Argentine government officials had no further interest in this individual," Bergeron says.
Because of that, Malik was allowed to go free on $15,000 bond while he awaits the outcome of his immigration trial, Bergeron says. But Nercellas, the bombing victims' attorney, who's intimately familiar with the bombing investigation, could not confirm that the Argentine government has cleared Malik.
Malik's current whereabouts are unknown, though Bergeron says a hearing is scheduled in his immigration case this February. And the crucial question remains: Is it a good idea to allow an alien who is under suspicion in a terrorist attack to go free in America? Bergeron defends the release. "Being quote-unquote "suspected' of a crime does not constitute legal grounds for anything," the spokesman says. "There is no legal finding which formally accuses this individual of a crime, and at best, there was some interest in questioning him about what he might have known."
There is no excuse for allowing a terrorist suspect like Malik to go free, says Steven Camarota, who is the research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. But he adds that releasing potentially dangerous aliens seems to be our immigration system's "standard operating procedure."
"That needs to change," Camarota says. "Part of the problem is a lack of detention space, but we are at war, and this is outrageous and absurd. They should hold people in cases like these, but instead they let them out."
The Mohammed Braish case is another piece of excellent work by the INS, Shewairy insists. The facts of the December 2000 case, however, strongly indicate otherwise. And Shewairy's account of it was riddled with inaccuracies, New Times found.
Braish's itinerary before arriving in Fort Lauderdale was as suspicious as the story he told postarrival. His first stop after leaving Jordan was Madrid, according to federal court records. It is now known that a terrorist cell suspected to have been involved in the September 11 attacks was operating in the Spanish capital at the time -- and that suspected ringleader Mohamed Atta visited that city twice before the hijackings. Braish also stayed for a time in Cuba before coming to Fort Lauderdale via Kingston, Jamaica.
Customs officer Irene Rishel first noticed Braish's name on a passenger list she obtained before the plane left Jamaica, according to sources in customs and the INS. Rishel, who wouldn't comment for this article, put Braish on a customs watch list because she had a hunch the young Arab, traveling alone from the island on the last flight of the night, might be a terrorist, sources say.