President says he's outraged over INS letters for hijackers

Bush says belated OK of student visas shows need for agency's reform

March 14, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that the embarrassing disclosure that the Immigration and Naturalization Service notified a Florida flight school this week that two Sept. 11 hijackers were approved for student visas made him "plenty hot" and demonstrated the urgent need to reform the agency.

Bush, at a late afternoon news conference, said he holds INS Commissioner James W. Ziglar and other top officials responsible for the "inexcusable" foul-up.

"It got my attention this morning when I read about that," Bush said. "Let me put it another way, I was plenty hot. And I made that clear to people in my administration. ... I could barely get my coffee down.

"We've got to reform the INS, and we've got to push hard to do so. This is an interesting wake-up call for those who run the INS."

The agency, long criticized for mismanagement and shoddy recordkeeping, has been implementing a reorganization plan announced in November to correct its deficiencies.

The plan calls for the INS, which is part of the Justice Department, to be split into two branches, one to provide services to legal immigrants, the other to enforce immigration laws.

The plan also calls for tighter controls at the nation's borders and the closing of numerous loopholes that allow dangerous foreigners and illegal immigrants into the country - such as the student visa program.

The two hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, were approved to remain in the country on M-1 student visas last July and August, respectively, so they could attend the Huffman Aviation International flight school. They were already in the country on tourist visas.

Copies of their applications and their approval letters arrived at the flight school in Venice, Fla., on Monday, six months to the day after each man crashed a commercial airliner into a tower of the World Trade Center.

Yesterday Bush said he believed Ziglar, whom he called a "good man," and Attorney General John Ashcroft knew he was angry.

"He got the message," Bush said of Ashcroft. "And so should the INS ... and hopefully they'll reform as quickly as possible."

Shortly before the president spoke, Ashcroft promised a thorough internal investigation, ordering the Justice Department's inspector general to find out why the agency failed to stop delivery of the letters after the attacks and why it took more than half a year for the letters to reach the flight school in the first place.

"It is inexcusable when document mismanagement leads to a breakdown of this magnitude," Ashcroft said in a statement.

"Individuals will be held responsible for any professional incompetence that led to this failure," he said, "and inferior INS quality-control mechanisms will be reformed."

INS officials referred questions to Justice, saying only that the letters were copies of approval notifications that had already gone out to Atta and Al-Shehhi. The officials said they had no indication that the two men were suspected terrorists when their applications were processed.

The letters were sent to the flight school from the INS Student Processing Center, operated by INS contractor Affiliated Computer Systems Inc., out of its offices in London, Ky.

ACS, a multibillion-dollar company headquartered in Dallas, also handles all of the student loans in the United States and retirement benefits for Department of Defense employees.

ACS officials said yesterday that the company had been reviewing its procedures with INS throughout the day and would agree to any recommended changes.

Lesley Pool, chief marketing officer, said the firm's job is to take paper applications and enter the information into computers, where it is stored until needed.

After six months, she said, the company automatically returns the original student visa applications and approval letters to the institution of origin, in this case the Florida flight school.

She said she did not know why no one caught the letters before they were sent to two of the most notorious Sept. 11 hijackers.

"We're a very small part of the process," she said. "We have been told by INS that they are very satisfied with our performance."

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