8/13/2005

9/11 commission statement: Atta and his cohorts Visas (pdf)

Hate the darn thing (pdf) so here's the "meat" on their visas: All of them but 1 had tourist visas. Atta often violated rules on hos tourist visa (extended stay, entering with wrong visa). The commission's official PDF file link is at the end of the post -- law
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Most important quote:
Marwan al Shehhi came in through Newark in late May 2000, followed a week later by Mohamed Atta. Both were admitted as tourists and soon entered flight school in Florida. In September they did file applications to change their status. Before 9/11, regulations allowed tourists to change their status at any time, so they were in compliance. But both overstayed their periods of admission and completed flight school to obtain commercial pilot licenses. Atta and al Shehhi then left within a few days of one another and returned within a few days of one another in January 2001, while their change in visa status from tourist to student was still pending Atta and al Shehhi did get some attention when both said they were coming back to finish flight school. Primary inspectors noticed with each that their story clashed with their attempt to reenter on tourist visas. The rules required them to get proper student visas while they had been overseas, since their earlier pending applications for a change of status were considered abandoned once they left the United States. Atta and al Shehhi were each referred by the primary inspectors to secondary inspection. At secondary, more experienced inspectors could conduct longer interviews, check more databases, take fingerprints, examine personal property, and call on other agencies for help. The inspectors involved have stated they do not remember these encounters. The reports indicate that both men repeated their story about still going to flight school and their pending applications for a change of status. The secondary inspectors admitted Atta and al Shehhi as tourists


Visas
The State Department is principally responsible for administering U.S. immigration laws outside of the United States. Consular officers, a branch of our diplomatic corps, issue several kinds of visas for visitors and for permanent immigrants. In 2000, these diplomats processed about 10 million applications for visitors’ visas at over 200 posts overseas. U.S. law allows nationals of certain countries to enter without visas on a reciprocal basis, under the visa waiver program.

None of the 9/11 hijackers, however, were nationals of a visa waiver country. Before 9/11, visa applicant s provided their passport and a photograph. A State Department employee checked the passport for any apparent questionable features. A consular officer could call the applicant in for an interview. The applicant’s essential information went into a State Department database. The information was then checked against a large “consular lookout” database called CLASS, which included a substantial watchlist of known and suspected terrorists, called TIPOFF.

Our immigration system before 9/11 focused primarily on keeping individuals intending to immigrate from improperly entering the United States. In the visa process, the most common form of fraud is to get a visa to visit the United States as a tourist and then stay to work and perhaps become a resident. Consular officers concentrated on interviewing visa applicants whom they suspected might leave and not return. Saudi citizens rarely overstayed their visas or tried to work illegally in the United States. The same was true for citizens of the United Arab Emirates. So, while consular officials in both countries always screened applicants in CLASS, including TIPOFF, they would not interview them unless there was something about the applications that seemed problematic.

Visa applicants from these countries frequently had their applications submitted by third party facilitators, like travel agencies. In June 2001, the U.S. consular posts in Saudi Arabia instituted a third party processing program called Visa Express. It required applicants to apply through designated travel agencies instead of by mail or in person. The program was established in part to try to keep crowds of people from congregating outside the posts, which was a security risk to the posts and to the crowds themselves.

We have found no evidence that the Visa Express program had any effect on the interview or approval rates for Saudi applicants, or that it reduced the scrutiny given to their applications. It actually lengthened the processing time. With the exception of our consulates in Mexico, biometric information—like a fingerprint—was not routinely collected from visa applicants before 9/11. Terrorists therefore easily could exploit opportunities for fraud. Khalid Sheikh Mohamed, the chief tactical planner and coordinator of the 9/11 attacks, was indicted in 1996 by Federal authorities in the Southern District of New York for his role in earlier terrorist plots. Yet, KSM, as he is known, obtained a visa to visit the United States on July 23, 2001, about six weeks before the 9/11 attacks.

Although he is not a Saudi citizen and we do not believe he was in Saudi Arabia at the time, he applied for a visa using a Saudi passport and an alias, Abdulrahman al Ghamdi. He had someone else submit his application and a photo through the Visa Express program. There is no evidence that he ever used this visa to enter the United States.

Beginning in 1997, the 19 hijackers submitted 24 applications and received 23 visas. The pilots acquired most of theirs in the year 2000. The other hijackers, with two exceptions, obtained their s between the fall of 2000 and June 2001. Two of the visas were issued in Berlin, and two were issued in the United Arab Emirates. The rest were issued in Saudi Arabia. One of the pilots, Hani Hanjour, had an application denied in September 2000 for lack of adequate documentation. He then produced more evidence in support of his student visa application, and it was approved. Except for Hanjour, all the hijackers sought tourist visas. Of these 24 visa applications, four were destroyed routinely along with other documents before their significance was known. To our knowledge, State consular officers followed their standard operating procedures in every case. They performed a name check using their lookout database, including the TIPOFF watchlist.

At the time these people applied for visas, none of them—or at least none of the identities given in their passports—were in the database. We will say more about this in another staff statement later today. All 20 of these applications were incomplete in some way, with a data field left blank or not answered fully. Such omissions were common. The consular officials focused on getting the biographical data needed for name checks. They generally did not think the omitted items were material to a decision about whether to issue the visa. Three of the 19 hijackers submitted applications that contained false statements that could have been proven to be false at the time they applied. The applications of Hani Hanjour, Saeed al Ghamdi, and Khalid al Mihdhar stated that they had not previously applied for a U.S. visa when, in fact, they had. In Hanjour’s case the false statement was made in an earlier application for a visit, in 1997, not his final visa application in 2000. Hanjour and Mihdhar also made false statements about whether they had previously traveled to the United States. Information about these prior applications was retrievable at the Jeddah post where each applied.

These false statements may have been intentional, to cover up the applicants’ travel on old passports to suspect locations like Afghanistan for terrorist training. On the other hand, these statements may have been inadvertent. During this period, Saudi citizens often had their applications filled out and submitted by third parties. Most importantly, evidence of the prior visas or travel to the United States actually would have reduced concern that the applicants were intending to immigrate, so consular officers had no good reason to deny the visas or travel.

Al Mihdhar’s case was uniquely problematical. He had not been entered into the TIPOFF watchlist at the time of his second visa application in June 2001. In January 2000 the American consulate in Jeddah had been asked about Mihdhar’s visa status in conjunction with an ongoing urgent terrorist intelligence investigation and confirmed that this al Qaeda operative had a U.S. visa. When Mihdhar applied again in June 2001, the check against the worldwide TIPOFF watchlist took place, but no system then in place included a notation of the prior visa status check. Neither the investigating agency nor the post had made the appropriate lookout entry. Thus, in effect, the post could not ‘remember’ relevant suspicions a year-and-a-half earlier about this same person, who was traveling again with the same biographical information.

At least two of the hijackers were actually interviewed in person in connection with their visa applications. Hanjour was interviewed twice. Satam al Suqami was apparently interviewed in Riyadh. Another hijacker, Ahmed al Nami, was apparently interviewed briefly, but just to clarify an entry on his application. The three consular officers involved have some memory of these interviews. All stated that the reason for the ir interviews had nothing to do with terrorism. They saw nothing suspicious. At least four individuals implicated in the 9/11 plot tried to get visas and failed: Ramzi Binalshibh, Zakariya Essabar, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, and Saeed al Gamdi. This Saeed al Gamdi is a different person from the Saeed al Ghamdi who actually became a hijacker.

Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni, apparently intended to train as a pilot along with his Hamburg friends, Mohamed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, and Ziad Jarrah. Binalshibh applied for a visa three times in Berlin and once in Yemen. He first applied in Berlin on the same day as Atta. He was interviewed twice and denied twice. Yemen is a much poorer country than Saudi Arabia. Both times, consular officers determined he did not have strong ties to Germany and he might be intending to immigrate unlawfully to the United States. Binalshibh tried again in Berlin, this time for a student visa to attend aviation school in Florida. He was denied again for lack of adequate documentation and failure to show sufficient ties to Germany. Essabar, a Moroccan who may also have intended to be a pilot, tried to get a visa in Berlin at least once and failed because he failed to demonstrate sufficient ties to Germany, such as a job or family there.

Third country visa applicants in Berlin were held to significantly higher standards—in terms of documentation and showing ties with the ir country of residence—than were Saudi and Emirati citizens applying from their own countries. Ali Abdul Aziz Ali is the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Sheikh Mohamed and was heavily involved in financial and logistical aspects of the 9/11 plot. He tried to get a U.S. visa in Dubai about two weeks before the attacks. His visa application states that he intended to enter the United States on September 4, 2001, for one week. As a Pakistani visa applicant in a third country, he would have received greater scrutiny from U.S. officials from the start. In any event, it was deemed possible that he intended to immigrate, and accordingly he was denied a visa. Saeed al Gamdi, also known as “Jihad” al Gamdi, apparently intended to participate in the 9/11 attacks. He is a Saudi and applied for a tourist visa in Jeddah on November 12, 2000, the same date as 9/11 hijacker Ahmad al Haznawi. Haznawi was approved, but al Gamdi was denied after an interview with a consular officer, because the consular officer believed he was intending to immigrate.

Entry into and exit from the United States
With a visa, an individual can travel to a United States port of entry. Upon arrival, the individual must seek admission into the United States from an inspector of what used to be called the INS, an agency whose personnel now form part of the Department of Homeland Security. Property being brought into the United States is checked by inspectors of the U.S. Customs Service, whose personnel are now also part of DHS.
The 19 hijackers entered the United States a total of 33 times. They arrived through ten different airports, though more than half came in through Miami, JFK, or Newark. A visitor with a tourist visa was usually admitted for a stay of six months. All but two of the hijackers were admitted for such stays. Hanjour had a student visa and was admitted for a stay of two years, and Suqami sought and was admitted for a stay of 20 days. The four pilots passed through INS and Customs inspections a total of 17 times before 9/11. Hanjour came to the United States to attend school in three stints during the 1990s. His final arrival was in December 2000, through the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport.

The other three pilots, Atta, al Shehhi, and Jarrah, initially came in May and June 2000. They arrived for the last time between May and August 2001. All made a number of trips abroad during their extended stays in the United States. Of the other 15, only Mihdhar entered the United States, left, and returned. Nawaf al Hazmi arrived in January 2000 with Mihdhar and stayed. Al Mihdhar left in June 2000 and returned to the United States on July 4, 2001. Ten of the others came in pairs between April and June 2001. Three more arrived through Miami on May 28. The INS inspector usually had about one to one and a half minutes to assess the traveler and make a decision on admissibility and length of stay.

For all the entries, a primary INS inspector would work a lane of incoming travelers and check the people and their passports. The inspector would try to assess each individual’s demeanor. No one noted any anomalies in these passports despite the fact, we now believe, that at least two and as many as eight showed evidence of fraudulent manipulation. The inspector would use the passport data, especially if it was machine readable to check various INS and Customs databases. The databases would show the person’s immigration history information, as well as terrorist watchlist and criminal history information.

Of the five hijackers who entered the United States more than once, three of them violated immigration law. Ziad Jarrah entered in June 2000 on a tourist visa and then promptly enrolled in flight school for six months. He never filed an application to change his immigration status from tourist to student. Had the INS known he was out of status, they could have denied him entry on any of the three subsequent occasions he departed and returned while he was a student.

Marwan al Shehhi came in through Newark in late May 2000, followed a week later by Mohamed Atta. Both were admitted as tourists and soon entered flight school in Florida. In September they did file applications to change their status. Before 9/11, regulations allowed tourists to change their status at any time, so they were in compliance. But both overstayed their periods of admission and completed flight school to obtain commercial pilot licenses. Atta and al Shehhi then left within a few days of one another and returned within a few days of one another in January 2001, while their change in visa status from tourist to student was still pending Atta and al Shehhi did get some attention when both said they were coming back to finish flight school. Primary inspectors noticed with each that their story clashed with their attempt to reenter on tourist visas. The rules required them to get proper student visas while they had been overseas, since their earlier pending applications for a change of status were considered abandoned once they left the United States. Atta and al Shehhi were each referred by the primary inspectors to secondary inspection. At secondary, more experienced inspectors could conduct longer interviews, check more databases, take fingerprints, examine personal property, and call on other agencies for help. The inspectors involved have stated they do not remember these encounters. The reports indicate that both men repeated their story about still going to flight school and their pending applications for a change of status. The secondary inspectors admitted Atta and al Shehhi as tourists. .

Flight 93 hijacker Saeed al Ghamdi was referred to secondary immigration inspection when he arrived in late June 2001. He had no address on his I-94 form. He spoke little English. He had a one-way ticket and about $500. The inspector wondered whether he was possibly intending to immigrate. Al Ghamdi convinced the inspector that he was a tourist and had enough money. Customs officers took a second look at two of the hijackers but then admitted them. On Marwan al Shehhi’s first entry into the United States, a customs officer referred him to secondary inspection, completed the inspection, and released him.


staff_statement_1.pdf (application/pdf Object)

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