- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

The White House yesterday ordered an investigation to determine why a Florida flight school that trained two of the terrorists who attacked America on September 11 received notices this week saying the students' visas had been approved.
President Bush, during an afternoon press conference, said he was "plenty hot" about the notifications, sent by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and that he had made his feelings "clear to people in my administration."
"I don't know if the attorney general has acted yet today or not … but he got the message," Mr. Bush said. "And so should the INS. This is an interesting wake-up call for those who run the INS."
Mr. Bush ordered Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge "to get to the bottom of this" as soon as possible.
The visa approvals by the INS were for Mohamed Atta, 33, and Marwan Al-Shehhi, 23, two al Qaeda terrorists who piloted jetliners into the World Trade Center, killing more than 3,000 people. The notices were sent to Huffman Aviation International in Venice, Fla., where the two men trained.
Mr. Ashcroft, described by high-ranking Justice Department officials as "furious" over the incident, immediately ordered the department's Office of Inspector General to investigate what he called "disturbing failures" at the INS.
"It is inexcusable when document mismanagement leads to a breakdown of this magnitude," Mr. Ashcroft said. "Individuals will be held responsible for any professional incompetence that led to this failure, and inferior INS quality control mechanisms will be reformed."
In a memo to Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, Mr. Ashcroft asked that the investigation include "not only the INS's failure to stop delivery of the notification letters," but that it also determine the source of the seven-month delay in their processing.
"I request that you conduct this investigation as expeditiously as possible," he said.
INS, in a statement, said Atta and Al-Shehhi filed requests in September 2000 to change their non-immigrant status from visitor to student. Atta's application was approved July 17, 2001, and Al-Shehhi's was approved Aug. 9, 2001. Notices to students are automatically generated on approval, the statement said, adding that a secondary notification to the school occurs later, after data is manually entered at an INS contract facility.
"It is important to emphasize that the decisions regarding the request to change status were made in the summer of 2001, prior to the tragic events of September 11," said the statement. "It is equally important to recognize that when the applications were approved, the INS had no information indicating that Atta or Al-Shehhi had ties to terrorist organizations."
INS said the current process for collecting and tracking information on students is paper-based and relies on manual entry into a computer system.
In November, a Justice Department investigation found that all 19 hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks had legally entered the country on tourist, business or student visas. Three of the air pirates had overstayed their visas, according to the department, although 16 others were in the country legally when they hijacked and piloted four jetliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and western Pennsylvania.
Atta, an Egyptian national, was admitted on a business visa in July 2001 but had been approved for a change in status to an M-1 student visa for nonacademic or vocational studies. He was identified as the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the World Trade Center's north tower.
Al-Shehhi, a United Arab Emirates national, was admitted on a tourist visa in May 2001. He also had been approved for a change in status to an M-1 student visa. He was identified as the pilot on United Airlines Flight 175 that crashed into the World Trade Center's south tower.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said he was "absolutely shocked" at the visa news, which he called a "major embarrassment" and "a recognition that we still have a lot of work to do." He used the situation to urge Mr. Ridge to come before Senate committees to answer questions on homeland security.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, and ranking committee Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska, have asked Mr. Ridge to testify before their panel, but he has not agreed to do so.
"We aren't comfortable coercing somebody to speak, but when you have somebody this important and when you have the issue as critical as it is for all of this country at stake, there shouldn't be any question about his willingness to come before the committees," said Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.
Mr. Bush said Mr. Ridge "doesn't have to testify" because he is a part of his staff.


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