Key to terrorism protection
By Elton Gallegly
Hidden by the political swiping that filled the airwaves and newspaper columns in the wake of last week's September 11 commission public hearings is what this country has done and needs to do to keep America safe.
Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has undertaken military actions overseas, increased the tools available for law enforcement and enhanced security at airports. These are all important steps and have made us safer.
However, the most critical - and unappreciated - tool we have to prevent another attack is strengthening our immigration system. Simply put, the current terrorist threat comes almost entirely from individuals entering from abroad. Therefore, any credible antiterrorism policy must start with effective control of our borders and ports of entry.
Unfortunately, a review of the events leading up to September 11 and other terrorist attacks demonstrates a pattern of weak enforcement of immigration laws, lax screening of visa applicants overseas and failure to share information among government agencies.
For example, the commission investigating the September 11 attacks disclosed as many as 13 of the hijackers carried passports that "showed evidence of fraudulent manipulation" or "suspicious indicators." In addition, the panel found at least six hijackers, including their leader Mohamed Atta, violated U.S. immigration laws. Finally, the commission concluded none of the hijackers filled out visa application forms correctly and three outright lied on their visa forms.
Previous reports revealed the CIA knew two of the hijackers had al Qaeda connections as early as January 2001, but that information was not shared with other government agencies until Aug. 21, 2001. At this point, after they had entered our country, the two hijackers were placed on the watch list used by the State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service. Even worse, this information was not passed along to the Federal Aviation Administration, which at that time maintained its own "no-fly" watch list.
A government report released last April found nine federal agencies maintained 12 separate watch lists. Considerable progress has been made since that report was issued, but the federal government still does not use a single, comprehensive, up-to-date list of terrorists or suspected terrorists.
Lax enforcement of our immigration laws was not unique to the September 11 attacks. The bombing of World Trade Center in 1993, the plot to bomb New York City landmarks uncovered in 1994 and the plan to detonate a bomb in the New York City subway in 1997 all involved persons who should have been denied visas at one of our consulates, stopped at the border or deported for violating U.S. immigration laws.
I want to stress that many of our consular and immigration officials have done and continue to do an outstanding job screening for terrorists. The September 11 commission noted that consular officers prevented four potential hijackers from obtaining a visa. And a fifth person, an al Qaeda operative named Mohamed al Kahtani, was turned back by an alert immigration inspector in Orlando on Aug. 4, 2001.
Officials believe Kahtani was planning to meet with Mohamed Atta at the Orlando Airport that day. Kahtani, who was possibly the missing 20th hijacker, was later apprehended by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
However, despite recent improvements and individual successes, it is clear federal authorities need to do much more to prevent terrorists from entering the United States. These would be my priorities:
Speed up the timetable for creating a single, integrated list of suspected terrorists.
Hire more consular officers to screen visa applicants and insulate this function from diplomatic pressure by moving it to the Department of Homeland Security.
Increase enforcement at the border by hiring more border patrol agents and, if necessary, using the National Guard. If poor, uneducated workers and their families can easily sneak into the United States, do we have any doubt sophisticated, well-financed terrorists - possibly carrying WMDs - can also breach our border?
Finally, every level of government has to strictly enforce the policies and laws already in place. If they had been enforced, every one of the September 11 hijackers would have been denied a visa, stopped at the border or apprehended inside the United States.
These reforms will not catch every terrorist on every occasion, but they will greatly increase the government's chances to thwart an attack. The apprehension of one terrorist by a border agent uncovered and stopped the entire millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.
Our government's No. 1 responsibility is to protect the lives of its citizens. We cannot allow another systemwide failure in our visa screening and immigration enforcement apparatus.