Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When U.S. Visa Controls Failed

NEW YORK -- For Hani Hanjour, identified as the pilot who flew the jet that rammed into the Pentagon, blending into the American landscape began in Saudi Arabia with a $110 application for a four-week English course in California.

The terrorist had only to prove that he had $2,285 to pay for the lessons, along with room and board. He never turned up for class.

Two other men the authorities said plowed jetliners into the World Trade Center, Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, entered the United States with tourist visas. Even without the required student visa, they went to flight school in Florida.

Consular officers deluged with visa applications say they generally do not have much time to investigate the applicants. Once foreigners enter the United States, immigration officers and law enforcement agencies usually have no idea if they are complying with terms of their visas.

According to U.S. immigration officials, the hijackers exploited an immigration system that critics contend is riddled with loopholes.

Until Sept. 11, that system was geared to ease the way for commerce -- whether in the form of tourism, business or study -- not security.

Experts on terrorism said that security precautions often took a back seat to pressures from industry, the concerns of neighboring governments and even bureaucratic rivalries in the United States government.

According to the State Department manual for consular officers, participating in the planning or execution of terrorist acts would bar a foreigner from getting a visa, but "mere membership" in a recognized terrorist group would not automatically disqualify a person from entering the United States. Nor would "advocacy of terrorism."

The manual, apparently unchanged since Sept. 11, says that the United States will exclude immigrants who incite or direct terrorist activity, but that statements of a general nature that do not directly advance specific acts of terrorism are not automatically a basis for exclusion, however offensive the statements might be.

Some American investigators have said they believe that Atta, the apparent leader of the group in the United States, belonged to Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and that he met with Iraqi intelligence officials this year. Yet he entered on legitimate visas, even re-entering the country after overstaying on his last trip to the United States.

And Zacarias Moussaoui, a Frenchman of Moroccan origin arrested last month after suspicious behavior prompted alarm at a Minnesota flight school, also entered the United States on a student visa, though French police suspected him of terrorist ties. French intelligence officials shared this information with the FBI after Moussaoui was arrested in August on charges of violating U.S. immigration law.

"In spite of elaborate immigration laws and the efforts of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the United States is, de facto, a country of open borders," the National Commission on Terrorism said in a report last year.

In a prophetic warning, the commission noted that one of the terrorists involved in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 had overstayed his student visa. "Today, there is still no mechanism for ensuring the same thing won't happen again," the commission said.

The lapses appear to have greased the hijackers' way at almost every step of their conspiracy. In the case of Hanjour, the school where he applied to study English, ELS Language Center, had no way of knowing he had obtained his student visa and entered the country.

Michael Palm, a spokesman for ELS, a division of Berlitz International, said the Immigration and Naturalization Service never sent the form documenting Hanjour's entry in the United States. Had it done so, the school would have filled out the form and sent it back, telling the service that Hanjour never reached the school. Instead, as far as ELS could tell, Hanjour belonged to its standard 10 percent of no-shows.

School operators say the immigration service faces a backlog of up to a year in notifying them of arriving students. And even if the school had gotten notice and relayed word of Hanjour's absence, the INS would probably not have considered finding him a high priority, immigration officials say.

After the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, Congress moved to tighten tracking of foreign visitors, including students. It ordered the immigration service to systematically match entries into the country with corresponding exits, for the first time.

It also ordered creation of an electronic database on foreign students accessible to law enforcement officials. But both moves met with stiff resistance from business and educational institutions. And both were delayed.