- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

The FBI has warned 18,000 state and local police agencies across the country to be on the alert for terrorists who might try to use cultural, arts or sports visas to gain entry to the United States illegally.

A bulletin sent Wednesday to the agencies said that, based on intelligence information, various terrorist organizations could seek to hide its members behind P visas that are issued by the State Department to those visiting the United States for various artistic, cultural or sporting events.

“Recent intelligence indicates that terrorist groups may be interested in exploiting cultural visa programs to infiltrate operatives and support network into the United States,” said the bulletin, first reported by the Associated Press.

Law-enforcement authorities said yesterday the bulletin contained no specific information concerning the source of the information or whether there was evidence that terrorists already had entered the country using the P visas.

“Often, there have been problems,” said Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a bureau within the Department of Homeland Security. “Is the person coming here for the stated purpose of the visa, or are they just trying to circumvent the program and stay here?

“The net is getting tighter,” Mr. Strassberger noted. “It’s harder to slip through.”

The FBI has issued several bulletins since the September 11 attacks on the United States, warning law-enforcement agencies nationwide concerning intelligence data gathered on suspected terrorist activity in this country. Many of the bulletins have not contained corroborated information or listed either specific targets or methods.

Last month, Texas oil-industry officials were told by the FBI to be wary of terrorist attacks by al Qaeda against petroleum plants as the November presidential election approaches, although that advisory contained no specific information about potential targets.

That threat advisory went to oil-industry officials and local and state police agencies in the Houston area, labeled by officials at FBI headquarters in Washington as “unconfirmed and uncorroborated” but forwarded by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Houston “out of an abundance of caution.”

At the same time, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said terrorists could seek to influence the presidential election by attacking in this country and abroad during the nominating conventions this summer in New York and Boston. Mr. Mueller said the March 11 railway bombings in Madrid might have emboldened members of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to make similar strikes here.

Terrorists, including members of the al Qaeda network, who were responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed about 3,000 people, frequently have used visas or fraudulent or forged passports to enter the country.

In November 2002, the Justice Department released information showing that all 19 of the September 11 hijackers had entered the country legally on tourist or student visas. Three of the terrorists had overstayed their one-year visas, the department said, although 16 others were in the country legally.

The P visa category covers alien athletes who compete individually or as part of a team at an internationally recognized level and aliens who perform with or are an integral and essential part of the performance of an entertainment group that has received international recognition as “outstanding” for a “sustained and substantial period of time.”

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