Oct. 23, 2002 -- A new report accuses the State Department of staggering lapses in its visa program that gave Sept. 11 hijackers entry into the United States.
The political journal National Review obtained the visa applications for 15 of the 19 hijackers — and evidence that all of them should have been denied entry to the country.
Almost all of the hijacker's visas were issued in Saudi Arabia, at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh or the U.S. Consulate in Jedda. Terrorist ties aside, the applications themselves should have raised red flags, say experts. The forms are incomplete and often incomprehensible — yet that didn't stop any of the 15 terrorists for whom the visa applications were obtained from coming to the United States.
The only alleged would-be hijacker who failed to get a visa was Ramzi Binalshibh, who was denied entrance to the United States repeatedly.
"This is a systemic problem," said Nikolai Wenzel, a former U.S. consular officer. "It's a problem of sloppiness, it's a problem of negligence which I would call criminal negligence because obviously, having reviewed all these applications, there is a pattern here."
The pattern? None of the 15 applications reviewed was filled out properly.
Brothers Wail and Waleed al Shehri applied together in October 2000. Under "occupation" Wail wrote "teater;" brother Waleed claimed "student." The name and address of alleged employer and school was listed as "South City," and the questionable U.S. destination named as "Wasantwn."
Abdulaziz Alomari claimed to be a student but didn't name a school; claimed to be married but didn't name a spouse; under nationality and gender, he didn't list anything.
Three months later, Alomari followed his friend Mohamed Atta through airport security … heading for the World Trade Center.
Khalid Al Mihdhar, who helped crash the plane into the Pentagon, simply listed "Hotel" as his U.S. destination — no name, no city, no state — but no problem getting a visa.
Just One Had a Slight Delay
Hani Hanjour, who also was on the plane that hit the Pentagon, had only a slight delay in acquiring his visa. A consulate employee flagged Hanjour's first application, noting that Hanjour wanted to "visit" for three years, although the legal limit is two. When Hanjour returned two weeks later, he simply changed the form to read "one year".
"They were handing these things out gift-wrapped with ribbons on top," said Joel Mowbray, contributing editor of the National Review.
Mowbray, who obtained the visas, said he was shocked by what he saw. "I mean, I really was expecting al Qaeda to have trained their operatives well, to beat the system," he said. "They didn't have to beat the system, the system was rigged in their favor from the get-go."
The State Department insists that employees did nothing wrong — that the questions raised about the applications amount to Monday morning quarterbacking, and that extensive screening procedures have now been implemented to improve the process.
The State Department would not allow interviews with current consular affairs employees.