Politics & Policy

A 9/11 Anniversary Primer

A neglected report shows how the U.S. government was a travel agency for terrorists.

A report explaining how that horrific 9/11 attacks came about, and why something similar will likely happen again, has received little attention, apparently by design.

9/11 and Terrorist Travel: Staff Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States” was released on August 21, a Saturday and the same day the 9/11 Commission disbanded. In a strange disclaimer, executive director Philip Zelikow says the report “does not necessarily reflect” the views of the commissioners. Zelikow leaves readers to speculate about the details, but there can be no doubt on one score. Had this document been released as part of the larger 9/11 Report (the bestseller), it would easily have been the most damning passage. “9/11 and Terrorist Travel” confirms that government ignorance, incompetence, and arrogance facilitated Islamic terrorists in their quest to murder Americans.

“It is perhaps obvious to state that terrorists cannot plan and carry out attacks in the United States if they are unable to enter the country,” explains the preface. “Yet prior to September 11, while there were efforts to enhance border security, no agency of the U.S. government thought of border security as a tool in the counterterrorism arsenal. Indeed, even after 19 hijackers demonstrated the relative ease of obtaining a U.S. visa and gaining admission into the United States, border security still is not considered a cornerstone of national security policy.”

The number of U.S. visa applications worldwide, the report says, grew from about 7.7 million in fiscal year 1998 to 10.6 million in fiscal year 2001, an increase of 37 percent. But before 9/11 the Immigration and Naturalization Services operated in a “virtual intelligence vacuum.” Furthermore, “few aliens were ever denied a nonimmigrant visa on grounds of on terrorism in the pre-9/11 era–only 83 in fiscal year 2001.”

Doris Meissner–who served in the INS from 1981 to 1986 and returned as commissioner in 1993–was briefed once on the terrorist threat from Islamic militants. But when the 9/11 Commission interviewed her, she could not even recall that single briefing. Meissner had never heard of Osama bin Laden until August 2001, nearly ten months after she left the INS.

When the demand for visas increased, the INS stepped up the pace. “Something had to give,” this report says. That could have been the applicants, with officials simply opting to work at their usual pace and letting would-be entrants wait. Instead they sped things up across the board, to the point that inspectors at airports had 30 seconds to decide whether people got into the United States.

An employee who “failed to do his job”–a simple check of a watch-list microfiche–enabled Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, a jihadist involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to avoid detection. The report also explains that “[f]ailure by the State Department to promptly watchlist Rahman played a role in his gaining entry to the United States.” Such actions have consequences, but the real shockers of this report are the visa applications of the 9/11 terrorists.

All 19 of the hijacker applications were incomplete in some way, with data fields left blank and questions not fully answered. Every application should have been round-filed. Yet U.S. officials approved 22 of the 23 hijacker visa applications. Of the 15 Saudis, four got their visas after the creation of the Visa Express Program in June 2001. Eight other conspirators tried to get visas during the course of the plot. Three succeeded, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11. Mushabib al Hamlan, one of the other two, did not participate. Mohamed al Kahtani, the other, ran into an inspector with Army experience, who thought Kahtani acted like a “hit man” and refused him entry. This unnamed inspector is one of the rare heroes of this report, but readers will get the feeling that many others would have waved Kahtani through.

The 9/11 crew knew how to work the ropes and beat a system so porous it doubtless reinforced their conviction that they operated under divine guidance. They received assistance from three illegal Salvadorans, who helped four 9/11 operatives use fraudulent documentation to obtain Virginia identification documents. That vignette should help dispel the notion that massive illegal immigration carries no negative consequences.

“9/11 and Terrorist Travel” observes that the State Department “drew fire” for approving incomplete applications, particularly for the 15 Saudi hijackers. “Some of the criticism leveled against the State Department was warranted,” says the report, not exactly a bold statement, and backed up with this: “With its reputation as a friend of foreigners, State was an easy target.” Readers may believe it should still be a target for criticism, perhaps the primary one. The reason State speeded up issuance of visas in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (where 17 of the 19 hijackers got their visas), and Germany “has never been adequately explained,” the report says.

U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Wyche Fowler–Bill Clinton’s choice for the post and a former senator from Georgia–made life difficult for officials who expected Saudis to follow the rules. When consular officials said it was “business as usual” with the consulate continuing “to waive interviews for the vast majority of Saudi applicants,” the State Department “chastised” them “for publicly stating this view.”

It gets worse. After 9/11, when some Saudis in this country feared reprisals, the FBI functioned as a kind of private bodyguard and security service for some. The embattled Border Patrol, the report recalls, did at one time receive help from the Department of Defense in the form of military personnel at listening posts. That ended with an accidental shooting of a civilian. Such shootings also happen in police work, but the cities involved do not then disband or disarm their police departments as a result. After 9/11, the Border Patrol requested DoD help at listening posts. The request was denied.

The cargo of alarming data will leave the alert reader with the impression that the earlier report, though riveting enough in the early chapters and sensible in some of its recommendations, was at least in part a cover-up. Consider 9/11 Commissioner Jamie Gorelick, the Clinton deputy attorney general who went far out of her way to make sure law enforcement and intelligence agencies didn’t talk to each other. This helped ensure that, as this report says, the government “didn’t know what it knew.” Gorelick makes a brief appearance here in footnotes. Her only role should have been as an interviewee.

The lapses and horror stories recorded here suggest their own reforms. These can be summarized by the late Barbara Jordan, who chaired the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. The report notes Jordan’s observation that our policy should let in those who should get in and keep out those who should be kept out. As for those who are here but should not be, Jordan wanted them to “be required to leave.”

That will strike readers as completely sensible, but as this report makes clear, the United States government has a marked aversion to commonsense solutions. One of them would be to check for potential terrorists not just on the way into the United States but on their way out.

According to “9/11 and Terrorist Travel,” the 9/11 attackers successfully entered the United States 33 times over 21 months through nine airports. And as the report makes clear, “border security still is not considered a cornerstone of national security policy.” If it is going to be, this belated document must get the attention it deserves–but it is hardly the last word. Three years after 9/11, an awful lot remains to be “adequately explained.”

K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director of the California-based Pacific Research Institute.


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