INS OKs hijackers' visas six months after 9/11

 - May 15, 2008, 6:53 AM

Plato may have been correct when he said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” but apparently that does not apply to flight instruction. At least not according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Exactly six months after Egyptian Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi of the United Arab Emirates died piloting airliners into New York City’s World Trade Center towers, their INS-approved student visas arrived at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla. It is believed Atta flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower and Al-Shehhi, flying United Airlines Flight 175, hit the South Tower 17 min later.

Once again Rudy Dekkers, Huffman’s owner, was unintentionally thrust into the public eye. Dekkers, whose flight school gave training to Atta and Al-Shehhi, was subjected to intense scrutiny by the world press in the aftermath of the worst terrorist action ever. “The visas just showed up in the mail,” he said.

According to Dekkers, the school applied for both visas on Aug. 29, 2000, when the two showed up for training. According to INS procedures, filing the applications allowed the school to conduct training while they were being processed. The visas indicate the INS approved Atta’s on July 17, 2001, and Al-Shehhi’s on August 9, 2001–almost a year after application and about a month before they carried out their atrocities on September 11. The visas were postmarked March 5, 2002, and arrived at the flight school on March 11–six months to the day after the terrorists’ deaths. The visas approved both Atta and Al-Shehhi to remain in the U.S. until Oct. 1, 2001.

The arrival of the visas proves what Dekkers said all along: he had fully complied with all INS requirements in a timely manner with respect to the two terrorists. It is now clear that INS dropped the ball.

According to the Associated Press, an INS spokesman called it an “embarrassment.” “The INS knew, apparently last July, that they were here,” Dekkers said. “We did it right. Until now I could never prove my point that we did everything we were supposed to.”

President Bush’s reaction was a bit stronger. The President told reporters at a White House press conference, “It got my attention. Let me put it another way: I was plenty hot.’’ Bush urged Attorney General John Ashcroft to investigate the matter and institute reform in the INS.

The President said he favors the idea of separating the investigative part of INS from the student-support services function. “This is a wake-up call for those who run the INS,’’ Bush said, noting that the agency has been forced to function with antiquated information systems. “They got the message and, hopefully, they’ll reform as quickly as possible.’’

An INS spokesman explained the late-arriving visas were “a backstop on notification the INS gave the men and the school last summer,” and stressed the INS had no information “regarding these people and their link to terrorism when the visas were granted.” He also suggested the delay in the paperwork was related to “a backlog at a federal processing center in London, Kentucky.”

No one has yet been able to explain how two of the most notorious names in the world went unnoticed by anyone within the system. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who serves in the very same district Dekkers’ flight school is located, said, “How this wasn’t discovered by even a rank-and-file worker is beyond my comprehension. Anything with Mohamed Atta’s name on it should send alarm bells blasting.’’

Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services operates the Kentucky processing center on a five-year, $75 million INS contract. According to the AP, Lesley Pool, the company’s chief marketing officer, said questions about the documents were best asked of the INS. Pool said: “Our role is purely to handle the paper.’’