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Breaking news 12/12/01

The easy path to the United States for three of the 9/11 hijackers
By Edward T. Pound

Three of the hijackers in the September 11 terrorist attacks obtained visas in Saudi Arabia through a brand-new program designed to make it easier for qualified visa applicants to visit the United States, an American government official said tonight.

The Visa Express program, put in place just four months before the attacks, allowed the three hijackers to arrange their visas through a State Department-designated travel agency, the official says. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers obtained their U.S. travel visas in Saudi Arabia.

None of the three men, the American government official says, was ever questioned by U.S. consular officers in Saudi Arabia. Each took his travel papers and passport to a commercial travel agency, which submitted the applications to the State Department.

Visa Express "is a bad idea," says Jessica Vaughan, a former consular officer. "The issuing officer has no idea whether the person applying for the visa is actually the person (listed) in the documents and application."

The State Department defends the Visa Express program and says security is most important--whether in Saudi Arabia or any other country in which consular officers issue visas. The State Department has tightened visa procedures, though Visa Express and similar programs in other countries remain in place.

Of the 15 hijackers who obtained their non-immigrant visas in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. official says, 11 received them before the Visa Express program was put into place, in June. The three Saudi nationals who obtained visas through the express program were:

Abdulaziz Alomari, about 28 years old. According to the Justice Department, he arrived in the U.S. on a tourist visa in June 2001. The FBI has identified Alomari, a pilot, as one of five hijackers who boarded American Airlines Flight 11 in Boston. The plane crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. Officials believe that Mohammed Atta, the suspected ringleader, was at the controls.

Khalid al-Midhar, 25, who, the Justice Department says, arrived in the U.S. in July 2001, traveling on a business visa. The FBI believes that al-Midhar was one of five men who hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 and crashed it into the Pentagon.

Salem Alhamzi, 20, who arrived in the U.S. June 2001, traveling on a tourist visa, according to the Justice Department. Alhamzi also was aboard the American Airlines jet that slammed into the Pentagon.

A fourth suspected hijacker, Saeed Al-Ghamdi, received his visa after the Visa Express program was started. The U.S. official says the man was "a walk-in" at a State Department office in Saudi Arabia and was apparently interviewed by a consular officer.

The official says that the names of the four men--and the names of all the hijackers who obtained their U.S. visas in Saudi Arabia--were run through the State Department's CLASS database (for Consular Lookout and Support System). The database contains regularly updated records and intelligence information on foreign nationals. "There was no derogatory information in the files,'' the official said.

The U.S. embassy in the Saudi capital of Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah issue visas. Government officials declined to say which office issued the three visas in question.

Visa Express was announced with great fanfare last June. When the visa program was unveiled, the American embassy in Riyadh said it was "proud to announce'' the new procedures, which were designed to help "qualified applicants obtain U.S. visas quickly and easily.''

The embassy announcement went on: "Applicants will no longer have to take time off from work, no longer have to wait in long lines under the hot sun and in crowded waiting rooms.'' Instead, "all applicants,'' the announcement said, "will be expected to use the U.S. Visa Express service'' offered by 10 designated travel agencies.

Many Saudis visit the U.S. More than 60,000 Saudi applicants obtained visas for the year ending September 30, either in Saudi Arabia or other countries, according to State Department figures.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the State Department has imposed a more rigorous review of Arab and Muslim men, ages 16 to 45, including in Saudi Arabia. Officials acknowledge that the new procedures, described as temporary, have slowed visa applications in Saudi Arabia.

"A substantial fall-off'' is the way one official put it.

In a statement, Christopher Lamora, a State Department spokesman, said that Visa Express was instituted, based on a "traditionally low visa-refusal rate and incidence of fraud among Saudi applicants.'' He said that similar "interviews-by-exception programs' were in place in other countries, including France and the United Kingdom. According to Lamora, consular officers run the names of all visa applicants through the State Department's CLASS database.

"Whether or not an applicant is personally interviewed by a consular officer,'' he says, "will not affect the results of that namecheck process.'' It is "not technologically possible,'' he adds, " to issue visas to people whose names appear in the system and fail to clear the system.''

As the terrorist attacks demonstrated, the information contained in CLASS was far from adequate. In the past, some law enforcement and intelligence agencies weren't anxious to share information with the State Department. In congressional testimony last October, Mary Ryan, a senior State Department official, put it bluntly: "We have had a struggle with the law enforcement and intelligence communities in getting information.''

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