Joel Mowbray

Saudi Arabia, though, was at the cutting edge of the ?courtesy culture.?  The General Accounting Office, in a report from October 2002, found that ?consular officers in Saudi Arabia issued visas to most Saudi applicants without interviewing them, requiring them to complete their applications, or providing supporting documentation.?  GAO-compiled statistics show that pre-9/11 less than 3% of Saudis were interviewed, and less than 1% were refused.  Compare that to neighboring Egypt, which had a 38% refusal rate in the year before 9/11.

Practice in Saudi Arabia allowed the hijackers? woefully insufficient applications to be approved, yet this was only referenced in passing.  From the first staff statement: ?All 20 of these applications (from the 15 hijackers) were incomplete in some way, with a data field left blank or not answered fully.?  But then this issue is immediately dismissed as inconsequential: ?Such omissions were common.?

In truth, such omissions were only common in Saudi Arabia.

What the commission should have explained is that the errors and blank fields would have been serious enough for all of the applicants to be refused.  A telling example is the U.S. destinations listed on the applications.  This is hardly a trivial tidbit, as it is supposed to be used to determine if the travel plans are legitimate.  The hijackers listed such specific locations as ?California,? ?New York,? ?Hotel D.C.,? and simply, ?Hotel.?

Practices have gotten somewhat better in Saudi Arabia since 9/11.  The most egregious program, Visa Express, which allowed Saudis to apply for visas at travel agents, was shut down in July 2002.  Ms. Ryan was pink-slipped on the same day, though her replacement was her prot? and clone, Maura Harty, who has done little to effect meaning change.

Thanks to two brave U.S. officials, though, not every potential Saudi hijacker got in.  One unnamed consular officer in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, made the unusual move of interviewing Saeed al Gamdi.  The Qaeda operative, whose nickname was ?Jihad,? was refused by a consular officer who apparently followed the law instead of Ms. Ryan?s dictates.

On August 4, 2001, Qaeda operative and Saudi national Mohamed al Kahtani was moments away from meeting up with Mohammed Atta.  That is, until he ran into ?experienced and dedicated? U.S. Customs inspector named Jose Melendez-Perez.  Perez testified to the commission that he turned back Kahtani because the Saudi gave him the ?creeps.?  But since Kahtani didn?t have a return ticket or hotel reservations, Perez was correctly following the law.

In highlighting these stories?as well as the tales of non-Saudis? difficulty in obtaining visas?the commission informed us that easy Saudi access to visas was key to the plot.  Too bad the panel left it to the public to connect those dots.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with, 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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