- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

There is nothing more essential to a terrorist than getting where he needs to go and staying there long enough to carry out his instructions. Weapons, money, contacts, training, and the terrorist activity itself, depend upon the terrorist being able to enter and then stay.

Prior to September 11, 2001, this was not difficult in the United States. Immigration laws were confusing for inspectors and judges alike. There were no national standards for turning away visitors. Intelligence to front-line officers was nearly nonexistent. Training regimes were weak, technology old and outdated. It was nearly impossible to verify identities and assure the accuracy of the available limited information about visitors who should have extra scrutiny. To make matters worse, customer service was favored over law enforcement.

While the administration has worked hard to reverse some of these problems, much more needs to be done. We can look backward at all the instances where border security failed to keep out terrorists or to oust them.

The failures and inadequate resources permeated the system, from ports of entry to the special field agents to immigration benefits centers. Even today, with all the increased vigilance in countering terrorism, we still do not know all the ingenious ways terrorists have or will develop to exploit our complicated and forgiving immigration regime.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin Republican, began shoring up some of these problem areas with his proposals to the National Intelligence Reform Act of 2004.

Some good language passed dealing with issues such as terrorist travel intelligence and biometrics. Mr. Sensenbrenner deserves credit for raising a tough and polarizing issue, and understanding a main theme of the September 11 Commission Final Report: that border security must be treated as an essential element of U.S. national security. If we want to prevent terrorist travel (a phrase we coined at the September 11 Commission), Mr. Sensenbrenner continues offering sensible solutions.

c First, we need to strengthen driver license and identification issuing systems by insisting on vigorous identity and security features. We also need to match the terms granted the holder of an identification card with immigration status. This is only common sense. All but one of the September 11 hijackers had a legitimate identity card. We know that in at least three cases a hijacker presented an identity card to an airline counter clerk on the morning of September 11. The one hijacker who did not seek an identity card knew he was here illegally. Shouldn’t we make sure others like him also are not entitled to an identity card?

It is well known that all the Virginia identity cards the hijackers acquired were obtained through fraud. It is less well known that on May 2, 2001, Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah (the pilot who crashed in Pennsylvania) acquired Florida driver licenses. This occurred the afternoon of May 2 after the two (we know Atta did and think Jarrah did so too) spent the morning in line at the Miami District Immigration Benefits office trying to fraudulently persuade an immigration inspector to extend how long one of them could legally stay in the United States — until Sept. 8, 2001, to be exact.

A more secure identification regime may not have prevented the events of September 11, 2001, but it may have caused a few more of the hijackers to be questioned by airline personnel on the morning of September 11. It certainly would have affected how Atta decided to manage the “assimilation” portion of his operation. And with the 19 hijackers having 68 total contacts with border officers, it is conceivable a more effective border security structure could significantly affect whether another terrorist travel operation with a similar purpose succeeds or is even attempted.

c Second, counterterrorism laws must be easier for front-line personnel to understand and enforce and immigration judges to interpret. Our laws for granting permission to visitors coming into the United States do not always match our laws of deportability. This is not really a surprise. Immigration laws are so thick with variants and changes that consistency is more the exception than the rule. By making a terrorist deportable for terrorism-related grounds such as giving money to an organization he knew or should have known was supporting terror, we clarify what our law enforcement officers need to do to enforce counterterrorism laws.

Clearer rules may have kept Atta out of the country in January 2001. Just as importantly, however, clear-cut rules that enable immigration attorneys and judges to make decisions supported by both immigration law and a solid national security policy are in the best interest of everyone, visitors and citizens alike.

Janice Kephart is a former counsel to the September 11 Commission and an author of “September 11 and Terrorist Travel, A Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.”

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