- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Approval of student visas for two September 11 terrorists six months after they attacked America raises "serious concerns" about the ability of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to track foreign students, a report said yesterday.
Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine called the INS decision to issue the approvals "untimely and significantly flawed" after an investigation by his office into the notification of a Florida flight school that the visa status of hijackers Mohamed Atta, 33, and Marwan Alshehhi, 23, had been changed from "visitors" to "students."
Mr. Fine, in a 188-page report, said the incident raises serious concerns about the INS' monitoring and tracking of foreign students now in the United States, and he noted that planned improvements at the agency will not be ready by a January deadline.
He said computer information at the center of the agency's new visa tracking system is "riddled with inaccuracies."
The new system, called Sevis, was scheduled to go on line in January 2003, but, according to Mr. Fine, so many questions remain about how the INS will operate the system that its effect "will be minimal." The report also described the agency's old paper-based tracking system as "inefficient, inaccurate and unreliable."
Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday said in a statement that the report reinforced the need for fundamental INS reforms and that new rules have since been established to prevent foreign students from taking classes, such as flight lessons, until their applications have been approved.
"Our mission to make fundamental reforms is ongoing, and the Department of Justice and the INS will review the inspector general's recommendations and redouble our efforts to move the INS reporting systems into the 21st century," he said.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the INS, called the report "deeply disturbing." He said it showed that INS inspectors lack important information when assessing aliens' eligibility for admission into the United States.
"Responsibility for this error must be shared by the FBI, which is supposed to alert INS and other agencies to such terrorist threats," Mr. Leahy said. "I call on the attorney general and the INS leadership to act promptly to improve the INS' foreign student program.
"The inspector general's report underscores the continuing need for the committee's inquiry and for our role of translating lessons learned into real reforms," he said.
Mr. Leahy also said a "thorough evaluation" of the FBI's performance in the visa debacle will hinge on pending revelations from a July 2001 memo from Kenneth Williams, an FBI agent in Phoenix, about the threat from foreign students at U.S. flight schools. That warning, sent to FBI headquarters, went unheeded, and Mr. Leahy will conduct hearings to determine why.
According to the inspector general's report, the INS took more than 10 months to adjudicate the student-visa applications of Atta and Alshehhi. As a result, they were not resolved until July and August 2001, well after they had finished their flight training course at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla.
Also, the report said, the INS official who approved the applications did so without adequate information, including the fact that Atta and Alshehhi had left the country twice after filing their applications, which meant they had abandoned their request for a change of status.
The report also said that even after the INS took 10 months to approve the applications, the notification forms were not sent to the Florida flight school for seven more months because INS did not adequately supervise a contractor who processed the documents.
After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which killed about 3,000 people, the report said the INS gathered Atta's and Alshehhi's files for the FBI but that no one at the agency "located or even considered locating the notification forms that were being processed by the INS contractor."
"As a result, the forms continued to be processed and were later mailed to Huffman Aviation six months after September 11," Mr. Fine said. "In our judgment, this was a widespread failure by many individuals in the INS."
The report said investigators concluded that although INS officials did not specifically violate policies and practices, the agency did not scrutinize aliens entering the country and did not uniformly require foreigners to present the required documentation before the attacks.
In April, the House voted to split the INS into separate bureaus, one to handle law enforcement and the other to administer immigration services. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.
Atta, an Egyptian national, was identified as the pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center's north tower. Alshehhi, a United Arab Emirates national, was identified as the pilot on United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the World Trade Center's south tower.
Last year, a separate Justice Department investigation found that all 19 hijackers involved in the attacks had legally entered the country on tourist, business or student visas. Three of the air pirates had overstayed their visas.

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