In an epic-sized 567-page report, the 9/11 Commission glossed over one of the most important aspects of the attack: all 19 of the hijackers entered the United States on legal visas, even though at least 15 of them didn?t qualify under the law. And the panel mostly shrugged off the U.S. policy that Saudis were granted easier access to visas than any other Arab country.
The commission?s latest interim report emphasizes, perhaps unintentionally, the importance of easy visas to the 9/11 plot. The panel revealed that one of the biggest difficulties faced by al Qaeda was getting Osama bin Laden?s hand-picked hijackers into the United States?unless they were Saudis.
So easy visa access for Saudis cleared a major obstacle: had al Qaeda had even one more hijacker, the White House or the Capitol might have met a different fate that day.
Three non-Saudis identified by the commission tried and failed to receive visas, including the would-be fifth pilot, Ramzi bin al Shieb, a Yemeni national. 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed didn?t even bother having two other Qaeda operatives selected by bin Laden to apply for visas.
Why? Because, as an earlier staff statement noted, ?It soon became clear to KSM that the other two operatives, Khallad bin Attash and Abu Bara al Taizi?both of whom had Yemeni, not Saudi, documentation?would not be able to obtain U.S. visas.?
Afforded only a brief mention?buried in a footnote on page 492?was a reference to what Mr. Mohammed reportedly told U.S. interrogators last year: that 15 of the hijackers were Saudis because they had the easiest time getting visas.
The Saudi visa policy was the natural result of the ?courtesy culture,? an effort spearheaded by the former head of Consular Affairs, Mary Ryan, which started with her appointment in 1993. The goal was simple: make ?customer? service and satisfaction the top priority in visa policy, where the ?customer? was not American national security.
Though there is nothing inherently wrong with customer service, Ms. Ryan?s regime advanced it to the detriment of security. Whereas the law known as 214(b) is very clear that all visa applicants are presumed ineligible until they prove otherwise, policies implemented by Ms. Ryan?literally?turned the law on its head.
Ms Ryan systematically dismantled the interview requirement, something she described in a cable as ?a very worthy goal.? In fact, by 2001 the only required interviews at most posts were for refused applicants?in order to give them an opportunity to overcome an initial denial.
Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.
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