he cover story in National Review's October 28th issue (out Friday) details how at least 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers should have been denied visas an assessment based on expert analyses of 15 of the terrorists' visa-application forms, obtained exclusively by NR.
In the year after 9/11, the hand-wringing mostly centered on the FBI and CIA's failure to "connect the dots." But that would not have been a fatal blow if the "dots" had not been here in the first place. If the U.S. State Department had followed the law, at least 15 of the 19 "dots" should have been denied visas and they likely wouldn't have been in the United States on September 11, 2001.
According to expert analyses of the visa-application forms of 15 of the 9/11 terrorists (the other four applications could not be obtained), all the applicants among the 15 reviewed should have been denied visas under then-existing law. Six separate experts who analyzed the simple, two-page forms came to the same conclusion: All of the visa applications they reviewed should have been denied on their face.
Even to the untrained eye, it is easy to see why many of the visas should have been denied. 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 and the rest listed only general locations including "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 experts who scrutinized the applications of 14 Saudis and one from the United Arab Emirates include four former consular officers, a current consular officer stationed in Latin America, and a senior official at Consular Affairs (CA) the division within the State Department that oversees consulates and visa issuance who has extensive consular experience.
All six experts strongly agreed that even allowing for human error, no more than a handful of the visa applications should have managed to slip through the cracks. Making the visa lapses even more inexplicable, the State Department claims that at least 11 of the 15 were interviewed by consular officers. Nikolai Wenzel, one of the former consular officers who analyzed the forms, declares that State's issuance of the visas "amounts to criminal negligence."
The visas should have been denied because of a provision in the law known as 214(b), which states that almost all nonimmigrant visa (NIV) applicants are presumed to be intending immigrants. The law is clear: "Every alien [other than several narrowly exempted subcategories] shall be presumed to be an immigrant until he establishes to the satisfaction of the consular officer, at the time of application for a visa, that he is entitled to a nonimmigrant [visa]." State's Deputy Press Secretary Phil Reeker recently remarked that 214(b) is "quite a threshold to overcome." It just wasn't for Saudi applicants.
Defying the conventional wisdom that al Qaeda had provided its operatives with extensive training to game the system with the right answers to guarantee a visa, the applications were littered with red flags, almost all of which were ignored. The forms were also plagued with significant amounts of missing information something that should have been sufficient grounds to deny many of the visas. For example, while all but one terrorist claimed to be employed or in school, only on three forms is the area marked "Name and Street Address of Present Employer or School" even filled out. At the very least, the CA executive points out, "The consular officers should not have ended the interview until the forms were completed."
Any discrepancies or apparent problems that would have been resolved by way of explanation or additional documentation should have been noted in the area reserved for a consular officer's comments yet this was only done on one of the forms. Which begs the question: Were 11 of the 15 terrorists whose applications were reviewed actually interviewed as State claims?
Though all of the 15 applications obtained by NR should have been denied, some were worse than others. Here are some of the worst:
Wail and Waleed al-Shehri
Despite the legal requirement that a visa applicant show strong roots in his home country (to give him or her a reason to come back from America), Alomari listed his home address as the "ALQUDOS HTL JED" (a hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia). Alomari didn't even bother filling in the fields asking for his nationality and gender, apparently realizing that he didn't need to list much more than his name to get a visa to the United States. As it turns out, he didn't. He got his visa.
When he arrived in the United States, he connected with his friend, Mohammed Atta. And less than three months later on September 11 he and Atta helped crash American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
On the subsequent application filed two weeks later, Hanjour was armed with all the right answers. Rather than stating "AZ, Rent home" as his U.S. location, he gave a specific address, complete with a house number and street name the only one of the 15 applicants to have done so. On the second go-round, Hanjour applied for a twelve-month student visa, and changed the purpose of the visit to "study" and the desired length of stay to a more appropriate "one year." But so many changes, all of which smoothed out rough spots on the original application, should have troubled the consular officer. "It's never a good sign if someone cleans up his paperwork too well," comments the current consular officer stationed in Latin America.
As disturbing as the visa forms are, perhaps more disturbing is that State's handpicked candidate to be the new chief enforcer of visa policies, Maura Harty, had not even looked at them as of her Senate confirmation hearing last week yet the Senate is poised to rubber stamp her nomination. That's a real shame, because examining the applications yields many valuable lessons. The most important is that we're not going to keep out terrorists until State figures out that it needs to enforce the law.
Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist.