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Immigration Laws Might Have Stopped Sept. 11 Plot

New commission report backs recommendation that suspected terrorists' travel be closely tracked.

August 23, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — All of the Sept. 11 hijackers broke U.S. immigration laws and some of those violations could have led to their detection and arrest, according to a new staff report from the bipartisan commission that investigated the attacks.

The detectable violations included fraudulent passports presented by as many as seven of the 19 hijackers, the report said. Also, U.S. intelligence had linked at least three of the hijackers to terrorist groups, but officials never placed their names on the watch lists used by border inspectors.

Moreover, the report said, ringleader Mohamed Atta was allowed back into the United States in January 2001, even though he had previously overstayed a tourist visa and was not eligible for admission.

The report, released late Saturday as the commission formally closed its offices after a 20-month investigation, provides details to bolster a key commission recommendation that intelligence agencies identify and track the travel patterns of suspected terrorists -- a strategy the panel said was still not being fully applied.

By sharing information on suspected terrorists' travel with U.S. consular and border officers, it might be possible to disrupt plots while the would-be attackers try to slip into position.

"Targeting travel is at least as powerful a weapon against terrorists as targeting their money," the commission concluded. "The United States should combine terrorist travel intelligence, operations, and law enforcement in a strategy to intercept terrorists, find terrorist travel facilitators, and constrain terrorist mobility."

The CIA was taking some steps in that direction in the 1980s, but it abandoned the efforts in the early 1990s. That was just at the time when the threat of attacks on U.S. territory was mounting, the commission staff found.

The agency had produced an unclassified manual and a training video for border inspectors, highlighting common features of forged passports and visa stamps.

"If we all screen travelers and check their passports ... terrorists will lose their ability to travel undetected, and international terrorism will come one step closer to being stopped!" exhorted the CIA manual, known as the Redbook.

The staff report of the Sept. 11 commission did not explain why the program was dropped, but it noted: "No government agency systematically would analyze terrorists' travel patterns until after 9/11, thus missing critical opportunities to disrupt their plans."

State Department consular officers, responsible for issuing visas to would-be visitors overseas, were focused on weeding out people who were seen as likely to become illegal immigrants. Likewise, customs and immigration inspectors at airports were looking for smugglers and economic migrants, the report said.

Since the attacks, the CIA has launched two initiatives, with mixed results, the commission staff said.

The spy agency's directorate of science and technology set up a passport analysis program to identify suspected terrorists according to the types of phony travel documents they used, and to develop scanners that could detect altered passports. But the report said the knowledge gleaned from the effort had not been used to full advantage.

"Integration of the passport analysis program's proven methods is languishing," the staff report said.

Another CIA unit, the terrorist mobility branch, aims to identify individuals and organizations that help terrorists move from country to country -- including corrupt officials, document forgers and travel agencies. Since January 2002, the program has "disrupted" 17 terrorist travel facilitators, the commission staff said. But the report also found that much of the analysis being produced by the branch failed to reach border inspectors.

Creation of the Homeland Security Department, which merged immigration and customs border inspectors, has addressed some of the "glaring deficiencies" that existed before the attacks, the report said. But it said significant weaknesses remained.

"Border inspectors today still do not have basic intelligence and operational training to aid them in detecting and preventing terrorist entry, or adequate access to databases important to determining admissibility, or even viable options to prevent documents known to be fraudulent from being returned to travelers denied entry into the United States," the report said.

For example, a recent investigation by the Democratic staff of the House Homeland Security Committee found that US-VISIT, a new computerized system for screening foreign visitors, could not directly access FBI databases that might contain critical information.

The report is available on the Internet at www.9-11commission.gov, and includes images of some of the hijackers' travel documents, such as burned remnants of a visa used by Ziad Samir Jarrah, the hijacker who piloted United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania after a passenger revolt.

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