Admitting Terror

The immigration service's own describe how America failed to protect its borders from the September 11 terrorists

Another safeguard, the Interagency Border Information System (a computer database that lists the names of known illegal residents, international criminals, and suspected terrorists), has been poorly maintained. During Congressional hearings throughout the 1990s, federal officials complained that agencies such as the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the FBI, and the CIA weren't sharing data on these groups. INS counterterrorism coordinator Walter Cadman admitted before Congress in 1998 that his agency needed to improve the "quality and timeliness" of data input. In July 1999 the Justice Department's inspector general found that the INS could not "ensure the integrity or reliability of the data used by its systems."

And an August 2000 General Accounting Office study found that little had been done to improve the computer system. "They simply need more people to input the information into the databases," Bayda complains.

New policies and programs, meanwhile, have made the borders even more porous. The Visa Waiver Pilot Program, instituted in 1988, allows visitors from 29 European countries to visit the United States for as long as three months without procuring a visa. Former Department of Justice inspector general Michael Bromwich announced to Congress on May 5, 1999, that the visa-waiver program poses "the greatest risk to national security and illegal immigration."

Pizarro, after the September 11 attacks, decided he wouldn't be a stamp monkey anymore. So he quit the INS
Steve Satterwhite
Pizarro, after the September 11 attacks, decided he wouldn't be a stamp monkey anymore. So he quit the INS


Read "Admitting Terror, Part 2", Part 3, and other related New Times stories

The following year, acting inspector general Robert L. Ashbaugh testified before a House committee: "We found evidence that... terrorists, criminals and alien-smugglers are abusing the VWPP to fraudulently enter the United States." Yet the program remains in place because it facilitates speedy travel through airports.

Another practice allowed returning U.S. citizens simply to hold out their passports while walking by immigration inspectors. It was recently abandoned because it was so susceptible to fraud. But again, it was fast.

In 1997 Touron sent a memorandum up the chain of command complaining that enforcement had been forgotten. "Facilitating does not mean throwing away the Oath of Office, which states: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,'" he wrote. "Facilitating does not mean that an immigration inspector is to blanket stamp an admission without fulfilling his obligations to the law."

The disturbing result is that the INS has become a laughingstock among even moderately sophisticated terrorists, complains Gonzalez, who was a member of the INS Terrorism, Drugs, and Fraud team (TDF) at Miami International Airport. Gonzalez says that, despite the unit's name, the service never really took the terrorism threat seriously at the airport. "You have to understand that everything INS does is pretty half-ass," he explains. "Terrorism was only a very minute part of TDF."

Pizarro jokes bitterly that the only service INS provides at airports is to weed out the most ignorant illegal aliens. "It's like social Darwinism," he posits. "If you're not dumb, you have a good chance of getting into the country. In the case of a terrorist, if we don't find a blueprint or plans in his luggage, he's going to get in."

The case of Khalid Almihdhar shows just how bad the INS had become prior to the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

This past Independence Day, the immigration inspectors at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport were busy facilitating passengers when Almihdhar took his turn at the thin yellow line. Almihdhar had flown in from Saudi Arabia with a business visa in hand. Almihdhar's only business, though, was mass murder. He is suspected of hijacking the flight that slammed into the Pentagon.

But Almihdhar, who was known by the CIA as a terrorist and is suspected of having played a key role in the East African embassy and U.S.S. Cole bombings, apparently had no problem entering the country. Like all other visitors, Almihdhar had to fill out an I-94 form before he was allowed entry. That form, which is supposed to include the visitor's address in the United States and other vital information, serves as the key document for INS officers attempting to track aliens. Almihdhar described his address on the I-94 form as simply, "Marriott in New York City." A grilling about that vague and imprecise response might have raised suspicion, but Almihdhar was rubber-stamped anyway.

It was good enough for the INS. It just wasn't legal.

Under the law aliens are required to put down a "complete and legible United States address" when they enter the country. Those who truly don't know where they will be staying must at least fill out the full name and address of an acquaintance in the United States. Almihdhar, who lived for a time in South Florida, did neither.

Roughly a month after Almihdhar entered the country, federal officials realized he was a suspected terrorist and the FBI set out to find him. But the Bureau had little to go on; ten Marriott hotels operate in New York City.

Agents couldn't track him down. FBI Director Robert Mueller lamented the scant information with which his agents had to work at a September 16 press conference. "One finds that when [visitors] fill out [I-94 forms] at the border, they can put down “Marriott, New York City.' And as everybody knows, there are a number of Marriotts in New York City," Mueller complained. "And when we're passed a name and required to find the individual and we have no identity data other than a hotel or motel, we do the obvious thing and... have them run all the hotels in that vicinity. But it is very difficult quite often to find somebody once they are in the country."

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