- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

The commission investigating the September 11 attacks was told yesterday that as many as 13 of the 19 hijackers used passports that had been doctored or bore other suspicious indicators in order to enter the United States.

Commission staff members also said they had evidence that five men associated with the plot had been kept out of the country — four being refused visas by consular officers and a fifth being turned away at an Orlando, Fla., airport by an immigration inspector.

The staff concluded that gathering information about terrorists’ travel should be one of the top priorities of U.S. intelligence, saying that disrupting terrorist mobility is at least as important as disrupting terrorist finance.

“Four of the hijackers’ passports survived in whole or in part,” Susan Ginsburg, one of the commission’s investigators, told the panel in a staff statement that started a two-day hearing, the commission’s seventh.

She said digital images of some of the other passports had also been recovered by the commission.

“Two of the passports that survived … were clearly doctored … in ways that have been associated with al Qaeda,” said Miss Ginsburg, who said that while details were classified, the commission believed that as many as eight of the hijackers “presented passports that had some of these same clues to their association with al Qaeda.”

The other two surviving passports bore what Miss Ginsburg called “suspicious indicators.”

“We have evidence,” she told the panel, “that three other hijackers … may have presented passports containing these suspicious indicators.”

“These warning signs [on the passports] could and should have been picked up,” former Rep. Tim Roemer, Indiana Democrat and a panel member, said after the hearing.

Mary Ryan, who headed the State Department’s Consular Affairs Department until September 2002, told the hearing that she was “outraged” to find that at least two of the hijackers should have had their names added to a State Department database so that they would be denied a visa.

Commission staff members further outlined how six of the terrorists were granted visas or admission to the country despite making “detectably false statements” on their visa applications, or having previously breached their visa conditions.

One of these was the plot leader, Mohammed Atta, who was admitted on a tourist visa, despite telling immigration officials that he was a student.

“He basically talked his way into the United States,” said commission member Richard Ben-Veniste.

Part of the reason for the ease with which the hijackers entered, the hearing was told, was that both consular officials who issue visas and immigration inspectors who check visa-holders were essentially looking out for people who might try to settle in the United States, not for terrorists.

“During the interviews with … consular staff,” said commission member John F. Lehman, who was secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, “they told us, ‘If only someone had told us that Saudi Arabia was considered a threat … . We weren’t looking for terrorists.’”

Miss Ryan explained, “Our government did — and still does — regard Saudi Arabia as an ally.”

Mr. Lehman seemed unsatisfied with this response, asking whether consular officers were “robots.”

Pointing out that, by the time these visas were issued, there was considerable public comment about support for Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Lehman asked, “Did they only take the official State Department position? Didn’t they read the newspapers?”

Miss Ryan replied, “I don’t believe [that] in a visa interview you would ever uncover a terrorist.”

“If you’re doing 200 interviews a day,” she added later, “you can only ask the basic questions. … It’s a very cursory interview.”

But Jose Melendez-Perez, an immigration inspector who turned away one of the plotters at Orlando airport, said his suspicions were first aroused by the “military appearance” of the man.

“There was a gut feeling that something wasn’t right,” he said. “The more questions I asked, the less plausible his answers became.”

“If everyone up and down the chain had been as professional as you,” Mr. Lehman told him, “the attacks would not have happen.”

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