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.