What the 9/11 Commission Missed

Posted: Jul 28, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

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.