Report: Aliens with visas revoked after 9/11 may be in U.S.
Justice Department: No security risks among nearly 30 people
From Mike M. Ahlers
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An estimated 30 people whose visas were revoked after the September 11 attacks due to terrorism concerns may still be in the United States, according to a draft of a congressional report.
The draft report said that the government has formal procedures for keeping suspicious people out of the country but relies on informal, faulty methods for tracking down visitors whose visas are revoked after their arrival.
Between September 11, 2001, and the end of 2002, the State Department revoked visas for 240 people who had entered the United States because of concerns they were terrorists, according to the report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Justice Department officials said the State Department revoked the visas because background checks on the individuals were not completed. The completed checks later turned up no security concerns, Justice officials said.
The report does not name individuals or account for the other 210 people. It said only that the number is based on an analysis of data received in mid-May from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS recently was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security.
Additional information since then "could show that the number of persons is higher or lower than 30," it said.
The House Subcommittee on National Security is set to hold a hearing Wednesday on the report.
The report faults communications between the State Department, FBI and INS.
Part of the problem, the agencies told congressional investigators, was the scarcity of revocations on terrorism grounds after a person had already entered the country. "This relatively small number resulted in [government agencies] operating in an informal manner," the report said.
But the lack of comprehensive, written policies and procedures "may have contributed to systemic weaknesses ... that increase the possibility of a suspected terrorist entering or remaining in the United States," the report said.
FBI and INS officials told congressional investigators they did not routinely attempt to locate or investigate people whose visas were revoked on terrorism grounds. In some cases, they said, it is because they were not notified about the change in status. In other cases, FBI officials said, the State Department did not alert them that persons with revoked visas could be "possible terrorists."
The INS also said it failed to pursue the matter because revocation itself is not grounds for removal. Even if the agency could find people, the report said, it would be challenging to remove them unless they were in violation of their immigration status or officials could prove terrorist affiliations.
"Without sufficient evidence linking the alien to any terrorist-related activities, the INS cannot institute removal proceedings based on that charge," the report said.
Six months after the September 11 attacks, the INS mailed visa approval notices for Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, identified as the two pilots who crashed planes into the World Trade Center. They applied to change their visa status from visitor to student a year before the deadly attacks, and both received approval before then.
The draft GAO report lists a series of recommendations to the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that agencies are notified about visa changes and appropriate actions are taken. Among them:
• Develop policies and procedures to ensure that notification of visa revocations for suspected terrorists is transmitted from the State Department to immigration and investigation units in a timely manner;
• Develop a policy on actions that agencies should take to locate individuals whose visas have been revoked for terrorism concerns; and
• Determine if any persons with visas revoked on terrorism grounds are in the United States and if so, whether they pose a security threat.