- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

All those silly folks who were worried about the continuation of "business as usual" as regards the policing student visas in the wake of September 11 can rest assured: Those wild and crazy guys and gals at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) haven't changed a thing, and they remain as deskbound and incompetent as ever.

The disclosure that the paperwork approving the visa applications of the pilots who struck the World Trade Center arrived at the Florida school on March 11, six months after the hijackings, is outrageous and "embarrassing," as President Bush put it yesterday. Records received at Huffman Aviation International, the Venice, Fla., flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi got flight training, show that Atta's application was approved in July and al-Shehhi's the following month. The letters were postmarked last week. The pair completed their flight course, which cost $27,300 each, by January 2001. In all, it took the INS close to a year to process the visa applications after they were submitted by a school official in August 2000, and it took seven additional months to return the forms to the flight school. Schools are not required to prevent foreign nationals from taking courses while visa applicants await an INS decision on their application.

INS officials issued a statement saying that the agency "regrets the late arrival of the notifications to the school" and blamed the delay on an "antiquated, inaccurate, untimely processing system." A senior Justice Department official asked, how "can these guys get training before they're approved to get training? That's a legitimate issue. But it's important to note that these guys were approved long before anyone in law enforcement knew they had ties to terrorist groups." How comforting.

In 1996, Congress approved the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility and Act, which requires that an effective system for monitoring and tracking students, exchange visitors and scholars from terrorism-supporting countries be instituted by Jan. 1, 2003. This was a huge step in the right direction, but it remains highly unlikely that such a system will be in place by that time. Also, the system would apparently need to be broadened to include individuals from Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. While those two countries are not officially designated as state supporters of terrorism, virtually all of the September 11 hijackers came from those nations. But until an appropriate electronic tracking system is instituted, the U.S. government will effectively remain deaf, dumb and blind to the activities of foreign "students" like Atta and al-Shehhi.

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