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Archive for Thursday, March 14, 2002

Bush livid about visas for hijackers

March 14, 2002

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— President Bush said Wednesday he was "plenty hot" to learn that student visas for two Sept. 11 hijackers were delivered months after they flew planes into the World Trade Center.

He ordered his attorney general to investigate and urged reform of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Bush described the matter as "a wake-up call for those who run the INS," but said the agency has antiquated information systems and needs an upgrade. "They got the message and hopefully, they'll reform as quickly as possible," Bush said.

The president said he was "stunned, and not happy" when he learned that no one intercepted the visas for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi before they arrived Monday at a Florida flight school.

"Let me put it another way: I was plenty hot," Bush told reporters at a news conference in the White House briefing room.

Before Bush spoke, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft directed Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine to find out why immigration officials failed to pull the notification letters and why there was such a long delay in processing them.

Bush said he was unhappy that the visas remained in the immigration pipeline even though the names on the forms were widely known. He said INS Commissioner James Ziglar was responsible for "this embarrassing disclosure" but should be given a chance to rectify the problem.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he would propose changes in the way the INS issues and monitors student visas. Specifically, Graham called for cross-checking records between police departments, intelligence agencies and Interpol, the global law enforcement arm, "to provide a more complete profile of prospective immigrants."

On Monday, exactly six months after the attacks, Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla. received student visa approval forms for Atta, 33, and Al-Shehhi, 23. The men were aboard separate hijacked planes that struck the World Trade Center towers, killing thousands.

The pair trained at Huffman in 2000 and early 2001 and sought student visas so they could attend technical schools. The visa for Atta, of Egypt, was approved in July 2001 and a visa for Al-Shehhi, of United Arab Emirates, was approved the following month, said Russ Bergeron, an immigration agency spokesman.

Bergeron said the INS had no information "regarding these people and their link to terrorism" when the visas were granted.

Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., whose district borders the flight school, said the INS has no excuse.

"How this wasn't discovered by even a rank-and-file worker is beyond my comprehension," Foley said. "Anything with Mohamed Atta's name on it should send alarm bells blasting."

l Kansans split in vote on border security measure. Page 8B.

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