Forgotten 9/11

Brian Stauffer

Two years after the attacks on America, the populace still doesn't know the truth about terror ringleader Mohamed Atta's entry into the country.

It was illegal.

Immigration agents shouldn't have admitted the Egyptian national at Miami International Airport on January 10, 2001. Records show he was allowed to enter as a student on an expired tourist's visa. The first immigration inspector at MIA to question Atta recognized these facts and singled him out for further grilling. But after a 30-minute interview, secondary inspector Robert Wilson gave Atta, who was the pilot of the first airliner that struck the World Trade Center, a big break: He let him through.

The immigration authority, which since has been broken into three agencies and is now overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, continues to deny that Atta was improperly admitted. And the Justice Department basically let the agency off the hook in an investigation last year.

Had inspectors turned away Atta, who was the chief planner of the 9/11 attacks, the world might well be profoundly different today. Yet the story hasn't been told in full, perhaps because it has been obscured by official denials and shrouded in the ambiguous complexities of immigration law. The government is in denial -- and that casts a dubious shadow over post-September 11 immigration reforms.

Atta's entry was only one symptom of the immigration authority's lax culture before September 11, 2001. Shortly after the attacks, I wrote a series titled "Admitting Terror" that documented how Immigration & Naturalization Service officials at MIA consistently broke laws and failed to properly inspect foreign travelers, including other suspected terrorists. One finding was a 1999 directive issued by assistant INS port director Henry Aponte about people who overstay their visas, called "7A's" in bureaucratic parlance, "Please stay away from 7A cases!!!!" Aponte wrote. "Case closed!!" Aponte's exclamatory order contradicted immigration law, which held that overstays -- such as Mohamed Atta and fellow September 11 conspirator Marwan al-Shehhi -- lose their visas.

The INS fell prey to political pressure that stemmed from huge lobbying campaigns by the airline and travel industries, to facilitate speedy international air travel at the expense of proper enforcement.

"Until 9/11, nobody took immigration security all that seriously," says Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., a conservative group that pushes for reduced immigration. "It was seen more as an obstacle or irritant than a security tool, and I'm afraid that two years later a lot of political forces that opposed border enforcement are starting to creep back. Things have changed some, but not nearly enough."

One might think that September 11 would have led to an overhaul of the agency's leadership. Didn't happen. Take Aponte. The official who ordered his underlings to ignore the law is still in power.

How about Ramon Rosario, the supervisor on the night of Atta's January 2001 entry? He's still a supervisor. Wilson, the inspector who stamped Atta's visa on January 10, is no longer an inspector, though. Rest easy -- he's been promoted to supervisor. John Bulger, the port director who oversaw the giant mess, is still in a position of power at MIA as well; he's the interim Miami district director for the new Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The only one drummed out of the agency, it seems, is whistleblower Jose Touron, a dedicated agent and union leader who did his best to expose the problems. Touron is appealing his termination, which came after he refused to escort an INS prisoner at the airport without security measures -- which included handcuffs for the suspect and backup officers.

The chief watchdog over the immigration authority is the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General, which investigated the Atta and al-Shehhi cases last year. Inspector General Glenn Fine, who headed the federal investigation, had a chance to expose the agency's failure, but his efforts -- which involved a team of three federal lawyers, four special agents, and three program analysts -- instead only illustrate the OIG's own ineptitude.

More than likely you never heard about Fine's 188-page report, which received superficial media attention when it was released on May 20, 2002. The report detailed how Atta first entered the country on a tourist's visa through Newark International Airport on June 3, 2000, and was authorized to stay in the country until December 2 of that year. Within two months, Atta was enrolled in flight school in Venice, Florida. Although Fine neglected to mention it in his report, that alone constituted a form of immigration fraud -- Atta clearly came here as a student rather than a tourist, a maneuver that allowed him to avoid the U.S. State Department's strictures on student visas.  

"It was an outrageous fraud," says Steven Camarota, the Center for Immigration Studies' director of research. "When Atta got his tourist's visa, he implicitly promised he wouldn't be a student, but that is exactly what he did."

On September 9, 2000, Atta applied with the immigration authority to change his status from tourist to student. A few months later, while the government was still processing his application, he finished flight training. On January 4, 2001, a month after his visa expired, he flew from Miami to Madrid. Six days later, he tried to reenter the country on the expired tourist visa. When questioned by the primary inspector, Atta said he had applied to be a student. At secondary inspection, Wilson allowed Atta into the country for an additional eight months, until September 10, 2001, the day before the attack.

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.

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