- The Washington Times - Monday, March 25, 2002

The Immigration and Naturalization Service once more is the source of bad news. The agency has a problem, all right, but it isn't as huge as some people think.
Indeed, the story involving the Huffman Aviation flight school in Venice, Fla., raises issues more profound than any now facing the INS.
It was two weeks ago that Rudi Dekkers of Huffman Aviation received notification from the INS that the student visa applications of two of his pupils, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, had been approved. As it happens, Atta and Al-Shehhi were among the al Qaeda terrorists who hijacked the jetliners that decimated the World Trade Center.
An embarrassed INS quickly issued a defensive statement regretting "the late arrival of the notifications." It emphasized that "the decisions regarding the request to change status were made in the summer of 2001."
Which was true: Atta, an Egyptian national, had entered the country on a business visa, and Al-Shehhi, a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, had come in on a tourist visa. To go to flight school and get a commercial license, they needed and duly applied for student visas. The INS had approved the requests in July and August. And because, as the INS noted, "letters to students are automatically generated upon approval," Atta and Al-Shehhi presumably received their notifications last summer.
"School notification," the agency added, "occurs after data is manually entered at a contract facility."
The INS statement did little to slow criticism of an agency whose daily press clippings probably are among the most negative of any government office. And a leading critic was President Bush. Declaring himself "stunned and not happy" about "the embarrassing disclosure," Mr. Bush asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate.
So it is that the Justice Department's inspector general now is probing what Mr. Ashcroft describes as "the disturbing failures in the INS' record-keeping, document-processing and mailing systems." "Document mismanagement" is the issue, says the attorney general, who warns that "individuals will be held responsible" for any incompetence.
No doubt we all would feel better if someone in the agency had the wit in the wake of September 11 to say any visa notifications involving the terrorist hijackers should be located and put aside, maybe even locked away in a safety deposit box, and certainly never mailed. Had that happened, there would have been no Huffman notification and, thus, no story about the INS' "disturbing failures."
Perhaps Mr. Ashcroft's investigation will turn up some incompetent who merits discharge. But it is hard to see what the INS now should do in processing student-visa requests that it isn't already working on. The agency is developing a computerized system to be in place in January whereby the students and their schools will be simultaneously notified once it decides a student-visa request.
The truth is that the Huffman story invites consideration of more important issues. One is an intelligence failure. Why were Atta and Al-Shehhi issued visas to enter the country in the first place? That is a question for the State Department, which granted the original visa requests by which the terrorists came here.
Perhaps the State Department had no basis upon which it could have denied the requests. But it also is likely the department took little time in approving them. There was and remains a very strong demand it comes from the travel and education sectors for visitors from abroad. "Any suggestion that we should take our time and tell our Foreign Service officers to look at these visa applications and not to issue them if they have any reservations is met with objections" from the travel and education industries, says Jan Ting, a professor at the Temple Law School who served in the INS a decade ago.
It also is worth asking why the law allows a foreign national to complete flight training while his request for a student visa is pending. In the case of Atta and Al-Shehhi, their requests weren't approved until they had finished their training. If preventing terrorism is our highest concern as it should be that makes no sense. Yet here, too, there is strong demand for providing the education even as the visa requests have yet to be ruled on from the educational institutions. They want students and the tuition they pay.
The Huffman story should be a wake-up call, not just for the INS but also for the State Department and our intelligence agencies and for Congress, which writes the immigration laws. The war on terrorism is proving by the day, it seems, a larger and larger test of American resolve.
Correction: In a column on the recent Independent counsel's report dealing with the Lewinsky matter, I wrote that the alleged crime of "impeding the due administration of justice" isn't found in the U.S. Code. That was incorrect. Section 1503 of Title 18 in fact criminalizes activity that "impedes" or "endeavors … to impede … the due administration of justice." "Impeding the due administration of justice" amounts to "obstructing justice," which is the more familiar term.

Terry Eastland is publisher of the Weekly Standard.

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