Admitting Terror

The Immigration and Naturalization Service had terror ringleader Mohamed Atta in its grasp before the Sept. 11 attacks. Then the agency, which stands on the domestic frontline in the war on terrorism, let him go.

The 34-year-old Egyptian arrived at Miami International Airport earlier this year on a flight from Spain. His intention, he told immigration inspectors, was to learn to fly planes. Because he planned to go to school, the tourist visa he had used on a previous visit was invalid; the law required that he obtain a student visa from a U.S. consulate before entering the country. Following INS procedure, an inspector stopped Atta at the immigration line and sent him to "hard secondary," a room where intense investigations of suspected illegal aliens are supposed to take place.

Had INS management strictly enforced federal law, it would have deported Atta. Instead, officers decided to waive the requirement that he have a proper visa. Further, the agency didn't even make Atta fill out necessary forms or pay a $170 fine, as required under law.

With dreams of carnage and outrageous body counts, Atta was simply loosed on America.

This is the story that two well-placed INS sources, who asked not to be named, told the alternative newsweekly New Times. Federal officials, however, aren't talking about Atta's entry into the United States while the investigation of the terror attacks continues.

The incident, though, is a stunning example of how the INS failed in its mission to protect the country's borders from terrorists. Instead of strictly enforcing laws, it has disregarded them. The reason for these failures: Numerous former and current INS inspectors allege that the immigration service, for much of the past decade, has emphasized customer service and facilitation of air travel over enforcement. And they say national security has been compromised in the process.

Atta, they complain, was treated as a customer rather than an illegal traveler -- and the customer is always right.

Atta's story is only part of a list of glaring immigration-service failures that preceded the attacks. Another example: Suspected suicide hijacker Khalid Almihdhar was allowed to enter the U.S. even though he improperly provided an incomplete address on an I-94 form, which federal authorities use to track aliens once they have entered the country. Almihdhar's omission helped him elude FBI agents before the terrorism occurred.

Furthermore, both Atta and his frequent companion, Marwan Al-Shehhi, who was also involved in the Twin Towers' destruction, had overstayed previous visits but were allowed back into the country anyway, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

The incidents might seem to be unfortunate mistakes or puzzling oversights. But they weren't. The neglect was intentional, say numerous INS insiders. Immigration officers were ordered not to enforce laws regarding overstay cases and I-94 forms, official INS documents show. For instance, assistant INS port director Henry Aponte, who is stationed at Miami International, issued a succinct directive to inspectors via the federal e-mail system about overstays, which are coded as 7A's, on March 14, 1999. "Please stay away from 7A cases!!!!" Aponte wrote. "Case closed!!"

Former and current INS inspectors say orders like Aponte's are routine. While it might seem confounding that the INS regularly fails to enforce laws designed to catch illegal aliens, such failures are rampant. Reacting to constant pressure from the airline industry to speed up the inspection process, the immigration service emphasizes the movement of visitors into the country rather than the capture of illegal aliens.

The result, argues INS inspector William King, is that the agency largely serves as a tool of the airline industry. "People come into this business expecting to enforce immigration laws and protect our borders," explains King, a union leader in Orlando who represents all of Florida's immigration employees. "Then they find out they are in customer service and nobody seems to care about enforcement."

The INS faces additional problems as the new war continues:

  • Immigration inspections are rushed affairs in which INS supervisors routinely demand that inspectors spend one minute or less per visitor. Inspectors complain that such time limits make effectively doing their job an impossible task.
  • INS management has largely stripped inspectors of their lawful power to decide who should be turned away at the border, even when questionable visitors are identified.
  • The INS has failed to follow a congressional mandate to monitor the departure of U.S. visitors.
  • Highly questionable programs that allow visitors into the country with little scrutiny have been instituted.
  • The INS has neglected to maintain properly a crucial tool to fight terrorism: computer databases with names of suspected terrorists gathered from the CIA and FBI.

The airline industry is unapologetic about the fact that it has long used its powerful Washing-ton, D.C., lobby to push Congress and the INS to speed up inspections. "For many years the INS has been fraught with mismanagement," says Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the airlines' chief lobby, the Air Transport Association. "It is ugly, so we have absolutely applied pressure for them to hurry it up."

Until the agency is freed from the airlines' grasp, the inspectors say, American security will continue to be compromised. INS officials, meanwhile, are quiet on the issue. The agency's spokespeople said none would agree to be interviewed for this article. Aponte didn't return phone messages for comment. INS spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman declined to comment on specific concerns but offered a general observation. "It's difficult," she says. "You must be sensitive to the delicate balance of enforcement with the interests of commerce and trade, facilitating travelers, and tourism. You are trying to deal with both sides."

It took the calamitous suicide bombings in New York City and Washington to shift the balance back in favor of enforcement. The responsibility for fighting terrorism is far from a new concept at the INS. As Walter Cadman, INS counterterrorism coordinator, told a U.S. Senate judiciary committee in 1998, "INS is invaluable to the government's efforts against international terrorism and foreign terrorists who attempt to cross our borders."

The first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 only intensified those efforts, Cadman told the committee. Even prior to that attack, the INS issued each inspector a classified document called "The Red Book," a little paperback with tips and instructions on how to find counterfeit passports and visas. The first page of the 1992 "Red Book," which was obtained from a confidential source, is headed: "The Threat is Real!"

"Since the early 1970s, numerous terrorist organizations have provided their operatives with a wide variety of spurious documents," the introduction to the book begins. "After showing their spurious passports and papers at border control, these terrorist operatives have proceeded to hijack airplanes, plant bombs and carry out assassinations. These terrorists acts, however, can be stopped. ... Terrorism is a plague that threatens all of us. It must be stopped. Use the RED BOOK!"

But inspectors complain that, despite the bold letters and exclamation points, their best efforts to stop terrorists and other illegal aliens are stymied by INS management. They contend that supervisors force them to rubber-stamp visitors at a dizzying pace. The work, as inspectors describe it, is stifling and uninspiring. Law enforcement is an afterthought, they say, and the only saving grace is a paycheck. The turnover rate is high, leaving the inspector corps chronically understaffed and harried. The majority of INS employees, says union leader King, are silent about these problems, fearful that speaking up would only lead to retaliation from higher-ups that could cost them their reputations and jobs.

Two inspectors who have broken the wall of silence are Jose Touron, a 50-year-old INS veteran, and Patrick Pizarro, who has already become bitterly disillusioned with the service at age 28. Through them a sketch can be drawn of the dire problems at the INS.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Pizarro was doing the same thing as most everyone else in America: watching events unfold on his television screen with what he describes as "horror and rage." He wasn't just angered by the suicidal perpetrators and the incredible scale of the damage they inflicted; he was also livid with the INS, where he'd been working for nearly four years. It was a general kind of anger; he didn't know then that several of the hijackers had entered the country through Miami International, where he manned a booth and inspected visitors. "I just sat there and thought how the INS was responsible for letting those people in this country," Pizarro says, "how they just let everyone slip through."

Pizarro refused to go to work that day for his 1 p.m. shift. Instead he stayed home and wrote about his feelings, letting the anger and disappointment pour out. Three days later, he sent an e-mail to INS port director Walter H. Lee and numerous other supervisors and inspectors. In it he blasted the agency and its failures. The document is a powerful testament to the demoralization of INS troops.

"... I'm not by myself, believe me, when I say that I just feel like a body with a stamp, charged with making sure the passengers make it in and out as quick as possible," he wrote in the two-page dictum. "A stamp monkey. Everyone feels that way ... [D]isillusionment remains rampant. We let people in every day that we know we shouldn't. ... I don't feel like a federal officer. I don't.

"Leadership doesn't make you feel that you need to stamp in as many people as possible in one hour; leadership makes you feel that you protect our country's borders by monitoring who we let in. I want to believe in what I do. ... Because on a day like Tuesday [Sept. 11], when the world turned upside down, I didn't [believe in what I do].

"My prayers and hopes are with you. This job will now be more important to this country than it's ever been before."

Pizarro resigned after the suicide bombings. He was going to quit this fall to return to college anyway; the attacks just hastened his departure. "A lot of my coworkers were like, 'Right on, you showed some balls,'" he says of the response he received from his e-mail. "But I had balls just because I knew I was going to leave anyway. Everybody else there is afraid."

Not quite everybody. Touron, while deeply concerned about his future, says he isn't afraid of the INS. He has always taken his profession as an immigration inspector seriously Ã? too seriously, in fact, for his supervisors' taste. He has been a thorn in management's side for years, helping to organize a local union chapter, American Federation of Government Employees 1458, and filing numerous grievances about the agency's lax and sometimes unlawful practices. He says his whistle-blowing stems from his deep belief in the need to protect the country's borders.

Touron was patriotic before the recent attacks stirred the spirit of the populace and made waving red, white and blue fashionable again. A native of New York, his home office includes several paintings and figurines depicting his favorite symbol, the Statue of Liberty. He's proud of his late father, a Cuban immigrant who fought in World War II and served in the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. As a teenager Touron went to war in Vietnam, where he served a tour of duty on reconnaissance missions as a Marine. In 1975 he became a Miami police officer. The following year doctors diagnosed him with cancer and gave him six months to live. But he beat the disease and rejoined the police department in 1978.

After serving in numerous law-enforcement positions, he was assigned in 1986 to work the police detail at Miami International, where he learned firsthand of terrorist threats to the United States.

That same year, on June 27, INS agents arrested 21 Egyptian nationals suspected of being potential terrorists at Miami airport. Twelve of them escaped on foot, and some were heard to yell, "Death to Reagan!" The incident was never made public, but Touron did not forget it.

In 1991 he joined the INS, and more tragedies soon hit him. Hurricane Andrew destroyed his apartment, and he was stricken with life-threatening heart disease brought on by previous chemotherapy treatments. He is alive today thanks to two pacemakers.

Touron, who is executive vice president of the local union and has represented several INS employees in disputes with management, says his travails have given him the strength to fight the immigration service. His complaints have led to various forms of retaliation, ranging from assignment to menial jobs to bogus reprimands, he claims. Management's most serious sanction against Touron came this past April 24. INS port director Lee charged him with insubordination, alleging that he refused a command to escort an unrestrained criminal deportee through a public area without backup or radio. Touron admits he didn't follow the order, but says he declined to do so because it violated INS security directives and posed a threat to him and the public. The INS is now taking steps to terminate Touron, while he appeals the charge. He still collects his paycheck, but isn't allowed to work.

Touron acknowledges that making public his grievances could end any hope of saving his job, but the terrorist attacks compel him to do so. All his official complaints have been ignored. "Who in INS let these guys in? Where was the security? It wasn't there," he says with disgust.

Both Touron and Pizarro, along with union leader King, agree the INS's preoccupation with efficiency rather than enforcement has ruined the service. Frank Gonzalez, who resigned in 1999 after serving seven years as an INS inspector, echoes those sentiments. So does Fernande Bayda, an Egyptian immigrant who served as an INS officer and supervisor for more than 18 years before retiring in 1999. Two other current inspectors, who feared retaliation if their names were used in this article, say they feel the same way.

In September 1994 then-INS commissioner Doris Meissner authored a pamphlet titled "Serving the Customers of the Immigration and Naturalization Service."

"We intend to improve the way we do business," Meissner wrote. "Customer service is a top priority."

It was distributed at airports and other ports of entry around the nation. At Miami International, inspectors were given a flier titled "Attitudes to Remember." It includes helpful little reminders such as, "Everyone has a good reason for what he/she has done," "Being flexible shows strength," "See others as you want to be seen," and "People are flawed, not evil."

Apparently management didn't have Atta in mind.

"Of course [INS workers] should all be courteous. That isn't the issue," Gonzalez says. "But the visitors aren't customers. The INS isn't selling anything, and they aren't buying. A lot of what they do isn't all that nice. I mean, imagine if we had to say, "Did you enjoy that cavity search, sir? Are you coming back soon?'"

To understand how Atta and his conspiratorial compatriots were repeatedly admitted into the U.S. by INS inspectors, a person must know how the process works at America's airports. When foreign visitors arrive, they are directed -- passports and visas in hand -- to a designated immigration room to await processing. The inspectors sit at booths and essentially guard what is officially termed a "constructed border" -- a yellow stripe in the carpet typically called "the thin yellow line." Before a visitor can cross, he or she must be approved by the inspector, who examines the visitor's travel documents, runs his or her name through the INS computer, and interviews the traveler about his or her intentions in the U.S.

Touron and others say that each inspection should, at minimum, last an average of two minutes. All parts of the process take time -- a thorough examination of a passport "tells a story," as Touron puts it, and can take more than a minute. The documents include a traveler's birthplace, parents' names, citizenship, country of origin, and where he or she has traveled before. All of this information, of course, could help pinpoint potential terrorists.

Interviews are also critical in the process. Since all the terrorists who entered the United States were lying about their intentions, all could have been turned away: Sharp, unhurried inspectors would only have had to find inconsistencies in their respective stories to deport them. Under the law, such wide discretion falls to INS officers.

In Atta's case, for example, an inspector might have asked his destination, whom he knew in America, how much money he had and how long he intended to stay. Had he or any of the other hijackers stumbled or given a conflicting story, the inspectors could have used their discretion under the law to refuse entry.

The problem, say inspectors, is not only that they don't get the time necessary to do their jobs, but also, when they try to turn away questionable travelers, their supervisors often overrule them. "It happens all the time," Touron says. "[The visitors] lie; they have problems with their passport. And a supervisor says, 'They look OK to me.' Stamp."

In addition to pressure from higher-ups, inspectors must also deal with airline representatives, who routinely demand that inspectors work faster. "They are interfering with police business and the security of the United States, and that is against the law," Touron complains. "But our supervisors always side with the airlines."

The airlines have every right to push for speed, lobbyist Wascom insists. "Yes, the airlines have complained vociferously about the INS on Capitol Hill," he says. "They are so poorly managed -- and I want to make it clear I'm not saying it's the inspectors' fault. They have good people on those lines. But when they are slow, it's an inconvenience for passengers and crew members. It causes people to miss flights and for baggage to be misplaced. We are in the business of moving people, not to enforce the law. We have an expectation that the service will be performed efficiently and in a timely manner."

In response to this powerful lobby, Congress has passed laws demanding time limits and applied pressure on the highest levels of INS. "The airlines put extraordinary pressure to get their people in fast," Pizarro says. "People complain to the airlines, and the airlines complain to Congress, and Congress goes to INS."

One of the resulting laws, which was put into effect during the last decade, mandates that the INS complete processing each U.S. visitor within 45 minutes of his or her leaving the plane. "Supervisors would stand over your shoulder with a watch in their hand, saying you needed to hurry up," former INS supervisor Bayda explains. "So we only had time to deal with people who were so obvious anybody could catch them. The sophisticated criminals, the counterfeiters, the smugglers, the terrorists -- [supervisors] didn't even want to know who they were. I think the World Trade Center attack is a direct result of INS emphasis on facilitation."

Touron puts it this way: "INS is working for the airlines. We are working for corporate interests instead of national security. And this is upsetting to the entire rank and file."

Pizarro says the immigration service is run on fear -- of lawmakers, airlines, the media, and visitors. "Everybody is so scared of everything that law enforcement is forgotten about," Pizarro declares. "And it all turns into a contest to see who can let the most people in the country in an hour."

Enforcement measures have deteriorated across the board, the inspectors claim. In 1996, for instance, Congress mandated that the INS begin monitoring departures to determine how many aliens were illegally overstaying their visits as well as to help catch criminals and terrorists. The INS and the airlines fought the measure, which was later repealed.

The disturbing problem of overstays, however, remains. A 1997 report by the U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General's office described the problem of visitors remaining in the country after their visas expire as "disturbing and persistent." Nearly half of the country's illegal aliens (then an estimated five million) likely were overstays, according to the report.

Another safeguard, the Interagency Border Information System (a computer database that lists the names of known illegal residents, international criminals and suspected terrorists), has been poorly maintained. During Congressional hearings throughout the 1990s, federal officials complained that agencies such as the Bureau of Consular Affairs, the FBI and the CIA weren't sharing data on these groups. INS counterterrorism coordinator Cadman admitted before Congress in 1998 that his agency needed to improve the "quality and timeliness" of data input. In July 1999 the Justice Department's inspector general found that the INS could not "ensure the integrity or reliability of the data used by its systems."

And an August 2000 General Accounting Office study found that little had been done to improve the computer system. "They simply need more people to input the information into the databases," Bayda complains.

New policies and programs, meanwhile, have made the borders even more porous. The Visa Waiver Pilot Program (VWPP), instituted in 1988, allows visitors from 29 European countries to visit the United States for as long as three months without procuring a visa. Former Department of Justice inspector general Michael Bromwich announced to Congress on May 5, 1999, that the visa-waiver program poses "the greatest risk to national security and illegal immigration."

The following year, acting inspector general Robert L. Ashbaugh testified before a House committee: "We found evidence that ... terrorists, criminals and alien-smugglers are abusing the VWPP to fraudulently enter the United States." Yet the program remains in place because it facilitates speedy travel through airports.

Another practice allowed returning U.S. citizens simply to hold out their passports while walking by immigration inspectors. It was recently abandoned because it was so susceptible to fraud.

In 1997, Touron sent a memorandum up the chain of command complaining that enforcement had been forgotten. "Facilitating does not mean throwing away the oath of office, which states: 'I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,'" he wrote. "Facilitating does not mean that an immigration inspector is to blanket-stamp an admission without fulfilling his obligations to the law."

The disturbing result is that the INS has become a laughingstock among even moderately sophisticated terrorists, complains Gonzalez, who was a member of the INS Terrorism, Drugs and Fraud team (TDF) at Miami International. Gonzalez says that, despite the unit's name, the service never really took the terrorism threat seriously at the airport. "You have to understand that everything INS does is pretty half-ass," he explains. "Terrorism was only a very minute part of TDF."

Pizarro jokes bitterly that the only service INS provides at airports is to weed out the most ignorant illegal aliens. "It's like Social Darwinism," he posits. "If you're not dumb, you have a good chance of getting into the country. In the case of a terrorist, if we don't find a blueprint or plans in his luggage, he's going to get in."

The case of Khalid Almihdhar shows just how bad the INS had become prior to the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. This past Fourth of July, the immigration inspectors at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport were busy facilitating passengers when Almihdhar took his turn at the thin yellow line. Almihdhar had flown in from Saudi Arabia with a business visa. His only business, though, was mass murder. He is suspected of hijacking the flight that slammed into the Pentagon.

But Almihdhar, who was known by the CIA as a terrorist and is suspected of having played a key role in the East African embassy and U.S.S. Cole bombings, apparently had no problem entering the country. Like all other visitors, Almihdhar had to fill out an I-94 form before he was allowed entry. That form serves as the key document for INS officers attempting to track aliens. Almihdhar stated his address as simply, "Marriott in New York City." A grilling about that vague and imprecise response might have raised suspicion, but Almihdhar was rubber-stamped anyway.

It was good enough for the INS. It just wasn't legal.

Under the law, aliens are required to put down a "complete and legible" U.S. address when they enter the country. Those who truly don't know where they will be staying must at least fill out the full name and address of an American acquaintance. Almihdhar, who lived for a time in South Florida, did neither.

Roughly a month after Almihdhar entered the country, federal officials realized he was a suspected terrorist and the FBI set out to find him. But the Bureau had little to go on; ten Marriott hotels operate in New York City.

Agents couldn't track him down. FBI Director Robert Mueller lamented the scant information with which his agents had to work at a Sept. 16 press conference. "When we're required to find [an] individual and we have no identity data other than a hotel or motel, we do the obvious thing and ... have them run all the hotels in that vicinity. But it is very difficult quite often to find somebody once they are in the country."

What Mueller likely didn't know is that INS was aware that many I-94 forms were incompletely filled out. Moreover, the agency intentionally violated federal rules concerning I-94 forms as a matter of unofficial policy. On March 26, 1998, former Miami International port director Dora Sanchez wrote that inspections had shown the airport was "deficient" in ensuring I-94 forms were complete. "This is an area that we must correct," she wrote in an interagency memo to inspectors.

But inspectors say nothing was ever done about it. In fact, on Aug. 14, 1998, Sanchez wrote another memo, this one complaining that some INS officers weren't "inspecting as fast as they should.

"In order to achieve an acceptable rate and maintain a less-than-45-minute processing time per flight, please adhere to the following," she wrote. One of her orders: "If there is no U.S. address and they have none, don't bother with it. Their foreign address will suffice OR a U.S. telephone number OR 'Hotel, Miami, FL,' etc. Please don't make the alien hunt for an address if he/she doesn't have one." (Reached by telephone, Sanchez declined to comment.)

The end of the memo is particularly interesting. Even while ordering inspectors not to follow immigration rules for the sake of moving "customers," she put in a word about enforcing the law. "Our time is very limited and we must use it wisely," wrote Sanchez, who now works for the INS in Dallas. "We must facilitate the entry of all passengers while not compromising our law enforcement efforts."

Letting people into the country was the easiest thing to do, and the bureaucracy naturally followed the path of least resistance. Unfortunately so did the terrorists.

This article originally appeared in Broward-Palm Beach New Times.