9/11 Commission and New Saudi Angle

Posted: Jan 26, 2004 12:00 AM

The 9/11 Commission on Monday will explore one of the most critical elements of the attack that claimed the lives of 3,000 innocent Americans: how the terrorists got into the United States.

  We have long known that all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists came here on legal visas, but one of the topics the commission will cover is that several other would-be hijackers did not make it because they were stopped by alert officials who sensed that something was amiss.  Though this might appear a vindication for the State Department?s beleaguered visa division, it is actually just the opposite.

  State has long argued that there was no way it could have prevented any of the 9/11 terrorists from entering the U.S. precisely because they didn?t have advance, specific intelligence about the threat posed by any of the individuals.  What State fails to mention, however, is that at least 15 of the 19 did not qualify under the law for visas?yet were given them anyway. 

  The reason: they were Saudis, and all Saudis were considered ?clearly approvable,? which is how the number two State Department official in Saudi Arabia described Saudi visa applicants in an e-mail in June, 2001.  It was because of this mentality that the consular officer who approved the visas of 10 of the 9/11 hijackers said that she overlooked glaring red flags in the paperwork, according to government investigators.

  In other countries, thankfully, consular officials did not have the same pressure exerted on them to roll out the red carpet for all visitors. 

  Those who were kept out?whom the commission will examine?were not denied access for terrorism concerns, but because the law was followed.  But that still meant that al Qaeda didn?t get all their operatives in place for the attack.

  News reports in October 2002 discussed how Ramzi bin al Shieb, one of the 9/11 plotters who is now in U.S. custody, went 0-for-4 in his attempts to get a visa to ?visit? the United States.  But more than a year later, authorities have revealed that at least three other al Qaeda members were likewise thwarted.

  A member of bin al Shieb?s Hamburg, Germany terror cell, Zakariya Essabar, was also denied a visa.  The commission will look at the reasons for his denial, as well as the cases of two others: one who was turned away by immigration inspector in Orlando, and one who was stopped by a consular officer because ?the paperwork didn?t look right,? according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

  The moral of the stories of the thwarted terrorists is that they weren?t able to commit mass murder on September 11 because they weren?t Saudis.

  In those cases, the law was followed.  And the law is very simple: any person who applies for a visa is considered ineligible until he proves himself qualified to obtain one.  An applicant must show sufficient ties to his home country and offer a legitimate?and believable?purpose for traveling here.  Though those factors weren?t designed with terrorism in mind, they might as well have been.

  The people least likely to convince the consular officer of their qualifications are young, shiftless men?the people most likely to be terrorists.  Young, single men without permanent employment can?t show strong ties to their home country, and any supposed month-long vacation plans should seem sketchy without a salary to pay for it all.

  But the law was not followed in Saudi Arabia, where even woefully ineligible applicants were approved.  This columnist was the first journalist to obtain the visa applications of 15 of the 9/11 terrorists (those of the other four had been destroyed), and the bias favoring Saudis was clear.

  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 only general locations, such as "California," "New York," "Hotel D.C.," and "Hotel." One terrorist amazingly listed his U.S. destination as simply "No." Even more amazingly, he got a visa. 

  The inevitable question the 9/11 Commission is likely to pose, then, is: what would have happened had the law also been followed in Saudi Arabia?