- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2005

The United States has installed a multilayered system of security checks for foreign visitors that effectively denies entry to known or suspected terrorists “all the time,” a senior homeland security official said.

Stewart Verdery, who left the Department of Homeland Security earlier this month, said the multiple checks “reject people [who want to come to the United States] all the time because of terrorist connections.”

But, in the wake of reports that senior al Qaeda leaders are considering ways to smuggle in operatives, other officials caution that the only result may be to drive would-be terrorists to cross the nation’s porous southern border.

Deputy Homeland Security Secretary James Loy told a Feb. 16 Senate hearing, “Al Qaeda has considered using the southwest border to infiltrate the United States,” believing “illegal entry is more advantageous than legal entry for operational security reasons.”

A U.S. intelligence official said yesterday that Abu Musab Zarqawi, a key leader of the insurgency in Iraq, had discussed with associates the prospect of bribing border officials to get terrorist operatives into the United States.

“If you come in legitimately, there’s a paper trail,” said the official, referring to the investigative leads generated even by successful visa applicants whose terrorist links are not identified immediately. “If you try to used forged documents, there’s so much to get right. It’s very difficult.”

The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the report about Zarqawi — first revealed by Time magazine — was based on detainee interrogations and its content seemed questionable.

Referring to Zarqawi’s reported conviction that anyone could bribe their way into the country, the official said that such a plot would have “a very low order of probability” of success, and that it seemed “more speculation [on the part of Zarqawi] than anything.”

The official stressed that getting across the southern border “is much harder than it was” before September 11.

“The Border Patrol are doing a great job down there,” the official said, highlighting the use of intelligence gleaned from high-tech sensors and cameras, local residents more aware of the problem, and informants among the so-called “coyotes” who bring illegal workers across the borders for a fee.

This official and others in the Department of Homeland Security are keen to stress that there is no evidence that al Qaeda or other Islamist terrorist organizations have tried to get across the border.

Nonetheless, “it would be the least dangerous of the available options” for terrorist operatives who may not know whether they are on the U.S. watch list, the official said.

Mr. Verdery said that visitors who require a visa have their identities checked as many as five times during the process of applying for a visa, boarding a flight bound for the United States, presenting themselves at immigration and leaving the country afterward.

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