By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Wilson wasn't named in the report; I learned his identity from confidential sources at the immigration authority. Immigration spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez deferred to the OIG report when asked about Atta.
Although the OIG's Fine didn't endorse Wilson's action, neither did he condemn it. First, Fine determined that Atta wasn't an overstay. He asserted that, because Atta had applied for a student visa, he could lawfully stay in the country while immigration officials processed it.
That is true, but as soon as he left the country, Atta abandoned that application, says veteran immigration attorney Robert Gard, who has written legal articles about the Atta entry at MIA. Thus, the overstay was applicable in Atta's case. "Any time you overstay, even by one day, your visa is revoked and you have to apply for a new visa in your home country," Gard says. "And Atta overstayed."
Fine, who didn't return calls to New Times, admitted that Atta had abandoned his application, but decided the tourist's visa was still good. Even then, Fine found that Atta shouldn't have been allowed into the country, because he had conceded that he was entering as a student on a tourist's visa.
But Wilson, who told investigators he had no memory of his encounter with Atta, said he must have thought the Egyptian was going to be a "part-time" student and that his schooling would be incidental to his pursuit of "pleasure" in the United States. Rather than dismiss this excuse as silly and insignificant speculation, Fine latched onto it: "If the inspector believed that Atta was not intending to attend school full-time ... admitting Atta as a [tourist] would have been appropriate," he wrote.
Gard, a former Chicago chapter president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says that, in his 26 years of practicing immigration law, he has never heard of that distinction. "I don't buy that a part-time student can come here under a visitor's visa," he says. "Even if he enrolled in a school for just one course, that's a violation of a tourist's visa."
In the end, Fine lamely ducked the issue. "We were unable to reach any definitive conclusion whether Atta's admission in January 2001 was improper, given the limited record relating to the admission and the inspector's inability to remember the specifics of what was said at the time," Fine wrote.
So the Justice Department spared the INS accountability for allowing Atta into the country. Worse, by the time the information filtered to the public via the Associated Press and television news, that point had somehow changed. The AP story stated that the report "does not suggest ... that the agency acted improperly in allowing [Atta] to enter the country three times."
Utter nonsense -- although it failed to reach a conclusion, the OIG strongly suggested the agency acted improperly. But such misinformation isn't surprising when you consider the Justice Department press release that accompanied the report. To wit: "With regard to Atta's and al-Shehhi's entries into the United States, the OIG concluded that the evidence does not show that the inspectors who admitted them violated INS policies and practices."
It's a lovely way to do business. First the OIG finds numerous problems with Atta's entry into the United States, but refuses to say it was wrong. Then the press release falsely indicates that there were no problems at all.
Thankfully, not everyone has been fooled. Camarota recently completed a study that showed that 22 of 48 al Qaeda terrorists who have entered the United States during the past decade did so after violating immigration laws. Atta is on his list. "The sloppy and lax nature of our immigration system played a central role in what happened on September 11," Camarota says. "I think most Americans would be outraged if they knew how sloppy that agency had become."
Immigration experts tend to agree that enforcement is at least slightly better today than it was two years ago. Even though it's already well behind schedule, the agency is implementing a foreign-student tracking system. And Congress last year repealed a horrendous law that required the immigration authority to process foreign visitors within 45 minutes of arrival. But the same old dubious district leadership remains in place and national funding, at $6 billion a year, is still far too low to be truly effective. And with our national treasury flowing into Iraq, that won't change any time soon.
One mantra repeated by immigration officials is that no one wants to be the inspector who allows in the next Mohamed Atta. But why not? That person might, like Wilson, get a promotion out of the deal.