An easy entry for enemies

Los Angeles Times staff writers

The Sept. 11 terrorists didn't have to steal into the country as stowaways on the high seas or as border jumpers dodging federal agents. No audacious enemy "inserted" them, commando style.

Most or all appear to have come in legally, on the kinds of temporary visas routinely granted each year to millions of foreign tourists, merchants, students and others.

Nothing in the backgrounds of these middle-class men from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and elsewhere apparently aroused suspicion among State Department consular officers who review visa applications. And, once here, the 19 hijackers-to-be didn't have to fret much about checkpoints and police stops, even after some of their visas expired and they became illegal immigrants.

The suicide attacks that killed 6,000 or more have brutally exposed shortcomings in airline security and intelligence gathering. But the strikes also highlighted another vulnerability: the nation's visa-granting and immigration regimen.

The entire system is principally geared toward meeting another kind of threat: people of modest means whose concealed aim is not to bomb and wreak havoc but to work illegally in the United States. Moreover, proposals by Congress to keep closer track of immigrants living in the United States have been delayed or blocked because of complaints that the new rules would be too restrictive.

"I worry about the whole screening process," said Rep. George W. Gekas, R-Pa., who heads the House subcommittee on immigration and claims, which will be considering broad changes in the aftermath of Sept. 11. "It has been rather porous in the past, and we have to strengthen it. What the incidents have done is raise the awareness of everybody."

However, any prospective reforms require a delicate balancing act. The United States records about 500 million legal entries each year. Officials must weigh the benefits of tighter enforcement against the value of free movement of people and goods.

"The kinds of enforcement and the kinds of controls you impose on the immigration system have to be done in a way that does not substantially impede legitimate travel and commerce, because it's our lifeblood," said former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner. "The vast majority of people coming here are law-abiding and good for the country. That's the balance that has to be struck."

What little is known of the hijackers' history in this country suggests a certain confidence that immigration law can be circumvented where necessary.

For example, confidential records indicate that two possible hijacking ringleaders -- Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, presumed pilots of the jets that hit the World Trade Center -- overstayed their initial visas. It is an abuse that can void the travel document. Yet despite having no valid visas, both men left the country and were allowed to return on flights through Miami and New York last January, said an INS official who reviewed the records.

Other hijackers may have been in the country on lapsed or otherwise invalid visas, authorities say. Officials declined to provide more specifics.

Yet, all the conspirators could have confidently stayed below the immigration enforcement radar screen amid the multitudes of foreign nationals who go on with their lives despite the prospect of deportation.

A similar pattern emerged with other foreign terrorist strikes on U.S. soil.

A Palestinian convicted of driving a van packed with explosives into the World Trade Center in 1993 received a student visa. He dropped out of school, and the INS never found him. The alleged mastermind of that bombing, another Palestinian, had a pending claim of political asylum. That same year, a Pakistani given a temporary work permit because of his political asylum application went on a shooting rampage outside CIA headquarters in Virginia.

Outraged critics on Capitol Hill and elsewhere are calling for a clampdown on visas now liberally granted to students and visitors. Among the proposals being circulated are tightened visa screening, mandatory waiting periods for visa applicants, systematic tracking of all foreign nationals in the United States and even the creation of a national identity card -- a notion long assailed by privacy advocates on the right and left.

"Right now we have no ability to identify, locate or remove foreigners who deliberately remain in this country long after their tourist or student visas expire," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo. "That is intolerable."

As many as 4 million one-time legal tourists, students and others have become illegal immigrants, according to government and academic estimates.

Federal officials acknowledge they have no idea where all these people are.

Congress has long hesitated to fund immigration enforcement efforts in the nation's interior, in contrast to the lavish budget increases bestowed upon the Border Patrol. Raids of factories, fields and other sites where illegal immigrants find work have never been popular with business.

In 1996, as part of a broad crackdown on illegal immigration, Congress passed a series of laws zeroing in on abuse of temporary residence status. Changes included expediting the expulsion of convicted felons and bogus asylum claimants.

But other congressional mandates were never put in place.

One measure directed the INS to develop an automated system to track the entry and departure of all visa holders. Another provision called for an accounting of hundreds of thousands of holders of student and other temporary visas.

Commercial interests and lawmakers from the Canadian border area complained that the new reporting requirements on people exiting the country would slow trans-border commerce. The Canadian government also balked. The plan was put off. Likewise, academic institutions objected to more controls on their growing populations of foreign students. That plan, too, was put on hold.

One of the Sept. 11 hijackers who went by the name of Hani Hanjour, entered the country on a student visa, ostensibly to study English at a Berlitz school in Oakland. There is no record that the Saudi ever enrolled, school officials say. No one checked. There is no law requiring schools to verify students' visas.

Student visa freeze proposed

Now federal lawmakers seem likely to take action to bolster regulation of student visas. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has recommended a six-month moratorium on such visas until the entire system is examined. Proposals circulating on Capitol Hill would require educational institutions, including flight schools, to inform the INS within 30 days if student visa holders fail to appear.

In recent years, federal officials have eliminated the visa requirement for millions of short-term visitors from Europe and elsewhere. The "visa waiver" program benefits 17 million visitors each year from 29 countries, including Western European nations, Japan and Singapore. The nations are considered low risk for visa fraud, but a 1999 Justice Department report found that abuse of the waiver program "poses threats to U.S. national security."

All of the 19 hijackers are believed to have come from Middle Eastern nations whose citizens are required to obtain visas to visit the United States. Yet where visas still have to be issued, little has been done to ease the burden on overwhelmed consular officers.

About 1,100 U.S. diplomats in more than 200 consulates and embassies worldwide have the power to issue visas. Consular officers, often junior diplomats on their first postings, face tremendous pressures, from often-desperate applicants and from superiors eager to move the line and avoid abnormally high denial rates that may offend the "host" country.

"The job of a visa officer is to be a gatekeeper, but it is very conflicting," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reduced immigration. "The State Department's goal is diplomacy, to make nice with the other country. Not to reject too many applicants."

Consular offices abroad issued 7.1 million temporary visas in fiscal 2000. An additional 2.4 million applications were denied. The workload represents a 25 percent increase in the last decade. There is no time to interview all visa applicants; those who are interviewed may only speak with a consular officer for two or three minutes.

"The State Department has been on a starvation diet in terms of personnel to staff these activities," said Meissner, the former INS commissioner. "They not only need more people so that they can screen more carefully, but they also need a better mix of junior people and experienced anti-fraud specialists."

Screening success called into question

In the last decade, federal officials have phased in a program to improve screening procedures and detect false or stolen documents at U.S. consulates and at the nation's ports of entry. How successful the reforms have been remains in question.

State Department officers now compare the name of each visa applicant with a watch list of 5.5 million who may be inadmissible for a number of reasons. Criminal histories and terrorist links may be bars to entry, but so are lack of funds, certain infectious diseases and other factors.

"The technology is such that you cannot get a visa without being run and cleared through the system," said a State Department spokesman. He declined to be quoted by name, citing department policy since Sept. 11.

The insistence on running names through the electronic watch list was in part prompted by the embarrassing discovery that Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric with a history of radical activities, was allowed to enter the United States in 1990 despite being on a State Department list of undesirables. He subsequently was granted a green card, allowing him to live in the United States permanently. He is now serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 plot to blow up several New York landmarks, including the World Trade Center.

Officials insist chances are much reduced that such a slip-up could happen today. Authorities cite an upgraded lookout system, better sharing of information among agencies, more fraud-resistant visas and passports and expanded preinspection of U.S.-bound passengers at foreign checkpoints.

But none of those reforms stopped the Sept. 11 terrorists. At least two, for example, were placed on a terrorist watch list, but not until after they had entered the country.

Saudi authorities say some of the men named as hijackers may have assumed the identities of Saudi nationals who are still alive. There is no lookout system in place to flag missing foreign passports, though some governments may alert U.S. authorities if batches of their passports are stolen.

Bureaucratic rivalries have long hindered the sharing of information among agencies. The State Department has sought for years to view FBI data, without success. The terrorist attacks prompted a group of senators to introduce legislation giving the State Department and the INS access to FBI information.

"Greater interagency cooperation will help protect the United States against international terrorism and national security threats," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., in a statement.

But improved screening efforts are only as good as the intelligence fed into law enforcement databases. It appears that all 19 hijackers were in the United States, and presumably planning their attack, before U.S. authorities were alerted to any possible terrorist link.

"Good intelligence is the best weapon," the National Commission on Terrorism said in a report last year.

"You have to know your enemy," said Meissner.

And even if the visa system is tightened enough to block the legal entry of all potential terrorists, there is the option of entering the United States illegally, like hundreds of thousands of immigrants do each year.

"We cannot insulate ourselves completely from terrorism by fortifying our borders and creating more efficient databases," warned Demetrios Papademetriou, co-chairman of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. "It will take nothing less than an immense, herculean effort that will be extraordinarily costly. And ultimately it will fail to prevent a determined bad guy, terrorist or not, from entering the country."

Los Angeles Times staff writers Lisa Getter in Washington and Greg Krikorian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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