by Joel Mowbray
The New York Post
October 9, 2002
The hand-wringing over 9/11 has mostly centered on the FBI and CIA’s failure to "connect the dots." But what if the "dots" hadn’t been in this country in the first place?
If the U.S. State Department had followed the law, at least 15 of the 19 "dots" should have been denied visas – and likely wouldn’t have been in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
I have obtained the visa-application forms of 15 of the 19 terrorists. Experts who have reviewed those forms say that all 15 should have been denied visas under then-existing law.
Six separate experts analyzed the simple, two-page forms (viewable only at NationalReview.com, starting today). All came to the same conclusion: Each of the 15 visa applications should have been denied on its face.
Even to the untrained eye, it’s not hard to see why. Consider, for example, the U.S. destinations most of them listed. Only one of the 15 provided an actual address – and that was only because his first application was refused. The rest listed such not-so-specific locations as "California," "New York," "Hotel D.C.," and "Hotel."
One terrorist amazingly listed his U.S. destination as simply "No." But he still got a visa.
The experts – who scrutinized the applications of 14 of the 15 Saudis and one of the two from the United Arab Emirates – include four former consular officers, a current consular officer stationed in Latin America, and someone with extensive consular experience who is now a senior official at Consular Affairs (CA), the division within the State Department that oversees consulates and visa issuance.
All six strongly agreed that, even allowing for human error, no more than a handful of the visa applications should have managed to slip through the cracks.
Nikolai Wenzel, one of the former consular officers who analyzed the forms, declares that State’s issuance of the visas "amounts to criminal negligence."
The visas should have been denied because of a provision in the law known as 214(b), which states that State’s screeners should assume that almost all applicants for nonimmigrant visas (NIV) actually intend to immigrate to the United States.
The law is clear: "Every alien [other than several narrowly exempted subcategories] shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for a visa, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant [visa]."
State’s Deputy Press Secretary Phil Reeker remarks that 214(b) is "quite a threshold to overcome" – it just wasn’t for Saudi applicants.
Defying the conventional wisdom that al Qaeda had provided its operatives with extensive training to game the system with the right answers to guarantee a visa, the applications were littered with red flags, almost all of which were ignored.
The forms were also plagued with significant amounts of missing information – something that should have been sufficient grounds to deny many of the visas. For example, while all but one terrorist claimed to be employed or in school, only on three forms is the area marked "Name and Street Address of Present Employer or School" even filled out.
At the very least, the CA executive points out, "The consular officers should not have ended the interview until the forms were completed." Which begs the question: Were 11 of the 15 terrorists whose applications were reviewed actually interviewed, as the State Department claims?
Any discrepancies or apparent problems that would have been resolved by way of explanation or additional documentation should have been noted in the area reserved for a consular officer’s comments.
Yet this appears to only have been done on the application of Hani Hanjour, who is believed to have piloted the plane that smashed into the Pentagon. An unidentified consulate employee wrote on Hanjour’s form, "going to flight school/ wants to being [sic] status when he finds a school."
As disturbing as the visa forms are, perhaps more disturbing is that State’s hand-picked candidate to be the new chief enforcer of visa policies, Maura Harty, had not even looked at them as of her Senate confirmation hearing last week – yet the Senate is poised to rubber-stamp her nomination.
That’s a real shame, because examining the applications yields many valuable lessons. The most important is that we’re not going to keep out terrorists until State figures out that it needs to enforce the law.
Joel Mowbray (email@example.com) is a reporter with National Review. Adapted from the magazine’s Oct. 28 issue.