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Visa fiasco blamed on 'widespread failure' in INS

Mohamed Atta, left, and Marwan Al-Shehhi  

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Justice Department report released Monday blamed "widespread failure" in the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the episode in which the INS sent student visa approvals for two September 11 hijackers to a Florida flight school six months after the attacks.

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine issued a harsh 188-page report citing a series of failures in the INS's handling of the cases of Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, who entered the United States three times during 2000 and 2001.

"We found the INS' adjudication and notification process to be untimely and significantly flawed," the report said.

"Our mission to make fundamental reforms is ongoing and the Department of Justice and the INS will review the inspector general's recommendations and redouble our efforts to move the INS's reporting systems into the 21st century," said Attorney General John Ashcroft, noting the department has already taken steps to improve the way INS works.

The inspector general noted the INS did not even approve the change of immigration status from "visitors" to "students" until last summer -- after the two had completed their flight training course at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Florida.

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The report said the INS official who belatedly approved the applications never did receive the information that Atta and Al-Shehhi had left the country twice after applying for the student visas, thus abandoning their requests.

In addition, the INS failed to supervise the contractor who processed the notification documents, which arrived exactly six months after Atta and Al-Shehhi had crashed planes into the World Trade Center.

In response to the report, the INS Monday issued a statement saying the agency "has already initiated programs that address many of the concerns raised."

The INS also emphasized the report's conclusion that inspectors did not violate INS policies and practices when admitting Atta and Al-Shehhi based on available information.

"As we have said many times before, there was no intelligence information available at the time of their admission that these men were terrorists or a threat to the United States," the INS statement said.

The inspector general said that when Ashcroft ordered an investigation into the belated INS notifications to the aviation school, his office had already initiated a broader review of the process by which INS tracks and monitors foreign students who enter the United States.

"With regard to our review of the INS's system for monitoring and tracking foreign students in the United States, it is clear that the INS's current paper-based system is antiquated and inadequate," the report said.

The conclusion echoes criticisms by Ashcroft, who recently announced a new automated computer tracking system called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS.

But the report also raised major questions about the new computerized method of tracking students.

"SEVIS alone will not solve the problems of the INS's tracking of foreign students," the inspector general said. "We also believe that it is unlikely that the INS will be able to meet the January 30, 2003, deadline for full implementation of SEVIS," the said.

The report said if the new system is to work, the INS must review and properly re-certify the thousands of schools now certified to enroll foreign students.

It also said INS employees and the schools would have to ensure that timely and accurate information is entered into the new tracking system, and that officials are trained to analyze and use the data properly.

The recommendations were among 24 listed in the report "to help address the deficiencies in INS practices and procedures that we found in our review."




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