Longform

Admitting Terror

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) had terror ringleader Mohamed Atta in its grasp before the September 11 attacks. Then the agency, which stands on the domestic frontline in the war on terrorism, let him go.

The 34-year-old Egyptian arrived at Miami International Airport earlier this year on a flight from Spain. His intention, he told immigration inspectors, was to learn to fly planes. Because he planned to go to school, the tourist visa he had used on a previous visit was invalid; the law required that he obtain a student visa from a U.S. consulate before entering the country. Following INS procedure, an inspector stopped Atta at the immigration line and sent him to "hard secondary," a room where intense investigations of suspected illegal aliens are supposed to take place.

Had INS management strictly enforced federal law, it would have deported Atta. Instead officers decided to waive the requirement that he have a proper visa. Further, the agency didn't even make Atta fill out necessary forms or pay a $170 fine, as required under law.

With dreams of carnage and outrageous body counts, Atta was simply loosed on America.

This is the story that two well-placed INS sources, who asked not to be named, told New Times. Federal officials, however, aren't talking about Atta's entry into the United States while the investigation of the September 11 terror attacks continues.

The incident, though, is a stunning example of how the INS failed in its mission to protect the country's borders from terrorists. Instead of strictly enforcing laws, it has disregarded them. The reason for these failures: The immigration service, for much of the past decade, has emphasized customer service and facilitation of air travel over enforcement, numerous former and current INS inspectors allege. And they say national security has been compromised in the process.

Atta, they complain, was treated as a customer rather than an illegal traveler -- and the customer is always right.


Atta's story is only part of a list of glaring immigration-service failures that preceded the attacks. Another example: Suspected suicide bomber Khalid Almihdhar was allowed to enter the United States even though he improperly provided an incomplete address on an I-94 form, which federal authorities use to track aliens once they have entered the country. Almihdhar's omission helped him elude FBI agents before the September 11 bombings occurred.

Furthermore both Atta and his frequent companion, Marwan Al-Shehhi, who was also involved in the Twin Towers' destruction, had overstayed previous visits but were allowed back into the country anyway, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

The incidents might seem to be unfortunate mistakes or puzzling oversights. But they weren't. The neglect was intentional, say numerous INS insiders. Immigration officers were ordered not to enforce laws regarding overstay cases and I-94 forms, official INS documents show. For instance assistant INS port director Henry Aponte, who is stationed at MIA, issued a succinct directive to inspectors via the federal e-mail system about overstays, which are coded as 7A's, on March 14, 1999. "Please stay away from 7A cases!!!!" Aponte wrote. "Case closed!!"

Former and current INS inspectors say orders like Aponte's are routine. While it might seem confounding that INS regularly fails to enforce laws designed to catch illegal aliens, New Times has found that such failures are rampant. Reacting to constant pressure from the airline industry to speed up the inspection process, the immigration service emphasizes the movement of visitors into the country rather than the capture of illegal aliens. The result, argues INS inspector William King, is that the agency largely serves as a tool of the airline industry. "People come into this business expecting to enforce immigration laws and protect our borders," explains King, a union leader in Orlando who represents all of Florida's immigration employees. "Then they find out they are in customer service and nobody seems to care about enforcement. Things must change."



The INS faces additional problems as the new war continues:

Immigration inspections are rushed affairs in which INS supervisors routinely demand that inspectors spend one minute or less per visitor. Inspectors complain that such time limits make effectively doing their job an impossible task.

INS management has largely stripped inspectors of their lawful power to decide who should be turned away at the border, even when questionable visitors are identified.

The INS has failed to follow a congressional mandate to monitor the departure of U.S. visitors.

Highly questionable programs that allow visitors into the country with little scrutiny have been instituted.

The INS has neglected to maintain properly a crucial tool to fight terrorism: computer databases with names of suspected terrorists gathered from the CIA and FBI.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman