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INS shakeup follows hijacker visa 'debacle'

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Four top officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service were replaced Friday amid a firestorm over the agency's letters confirming student visas for two of the September 11 hijackers.

Justice Department officials told CNN that changes were already planned at INS, but they acknowledged the government's frustration and embarrassment over what one aide termed "the debacle" had hastened the personnel moves.

INS Commissioner James Ziglar, who some key lawmakers criticized this week, officially announced that the executives were being shifted to other positions.

In a written statement announcing the changes, Ziglar said, "The breakdown in communication highlighted by this week's events at INS is unacceptable and will not be allowed."

The agency drew criticism from all directions when Huffman Aviation, a Florida flight school, disclosed it had received letters Monday from the INS confirming the approval of student visas for terrorist hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi. Authorities say Atta and Al-Shehhi piloted the jetliners that crashed into the World Trade Center's twin towers six months ago.

At a news conference Wednesday, Bush said he was stunned and "plenty hot" when he read about the matter.

"The INS needs to be reformed, and it's one of the reasons why I called for the separation of the paperwork side of the INS from the enforcement side," he said. "And obviously, the paperwork side needs a lot of work. It's inexcusable."

Attorney General John Ashcroft, meanwhile, asked leaders on Capitol Hill for the authority to fire INS officials -- a power that had been dropped during the appropriations process.

"It is essential that I have the authority to quickly discipline or terminate individuals for acts of negligence, mismanagement or disregard for Department of Justice policies," Ashcroft said in letters to House and Senate committees.

Ziglar maintains the confidence of the attorney general, Justice officials said.

Justice and INS officials said some of the replaced managers may have been involved in overseeing the process that resulted in the letters being mailed. Career Justice and INS employees considered to be stronger managers were named to replace other career employees, one official said.

The announcement said Renee Harris, the deputy chief of the Border Patrol, is being moved into the post of acting director for international affairs.

In addition, Johnny Williams, who heads the INS Western Region, was named executive associate commissioner overseeing all INS field operations. Justice Department veteran Janice Sposato and INS manager Michael Cronin were also named to top posts.

"We know there are longer term, broader situations that need to be dealt with, but this is to address the immediate short-term problem," a Justice Department official said.




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