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Ashcroft to call for probe into hijackers' visas

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft is "furious" at the Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service for recently sending letters to a flight school approving student visas for two of the September suicide hijackers, Ashcroft aides disclosed Wednesday.

Ashcroft is drafting a statement for release later today that will call for the Justice Department inspector general to conduct an investigation of the issue as soon as possible.

"The attorney general is extremely concerned and furious about the situation," a Justice official said. "We should not have confirmation letters going out six months later. That's an internal problem we need to fix," the official said.

Justice officials declined to speculate on whether INS Commissioner James Ziegler or others would be fired or reprimanded for the embarrassing incident, but it is clear the Justice Department is determined to find out who is responsible.

"Is accountability a concern? Absolutely," the official said.

The INS notifications of visa approvals for terrorists Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi were received by Huffman Aviation International in Venice, Florida, on Monday.

The INS response to publicity in the case also upset Justice Department officials. After INS first called the incident "embarrassing," it issued a written statement expressing "regret," only to release a final statement withdrawing the reference. INS emphasized the approvals took place prior to September 11, and that "the INS had no information indicating that Atta or Alshehhi had ties to terrorist organizations."

The INS has been a long-time target of harsh public criticism from both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, but sharp criticism from the Justice Department which oversees the INS, is often muted. Not this time.

"Obviously problems are inherent in INS," the Ashcroft aide said. "Whether it's structural, money, policy, whatever keeps us from fighting terrorism has to be fixed."

Although Ashcroft had not spoken with President Bush directly about the INS letters, Justice officials said the White House is expected to address the issue later Wednesday.

Ashcroft remains in Trinidad and Tobago for a series of Justice ministerial meetings focusing heavily on terrorism-related issues. Ashcroft is scheduled to return to the Justice Department on Thursday.




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