I have just finished reading the 500-page “9-11 Commission Report,” and what becomes quite apparent is that the weakest link in our antiterrorism defense system prior to 9-11 was the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It was so weak that it became a revolving door for al-Qaida sleeper terrorists who were issued visas that permitted them to come and go as they pleased.
And the one man responsible for creating this revolving door was Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts, whose 1989 Frank Amendment to INS procedures paved the way for the 19 hijackers to freely enter this country, take flying lessons, and quietly prepare for their deadly attack with no notice from our intelligence agencies.
Gerald Posner, in his highly informative book, “Why America Slept,” writes (p. 16):
From the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 soldiers to the 1985 hijackings of TWA Flight 847 and the cruise liner Achille Lauro, Middle Eastern terror was now on the White House’s priority agenda. Some CIA officers complained to the president’s national security team about their frustration with the FBI and warned that America was vulnerable to Islamic terrorists entering on legal visas and setting up sleeper cells.
Reagan responded in September 1986 by forming an interagency task force, the Alien Border Control Committee (ABCC), whose purpose was to block entry of suspected terrorists and to deport militants who either had come into the country illegally or had overstayed their visas. The CIA and FBI joined the ABCC effort.
Six months after its formation, the ABCC had its first notable success. The CIA tipped off the FBI to a group of suspected Palestinian terrorists in Los Angeles. The Bureau arrested eight men. But instead of being lauded, the Bureau and the Agency came under harsh attack from civil-liberties groups who argued that the ABCC should be banned from using any information the CIA gained from the government’s routine processing of visa requests.
Congressman Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who was a strong advocate of protecting civil liberties, led a successful effort to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act so that membership in a terrorist group was no longer sufficient to deny a visa. Under Frank’s amendment, which seems unthinkable post-9-11, a visa could only be denied if the government could prove that the applicant had committed an act of terrorism. Rendered toothless by the Frank Amendment, the Reagan administration had virtually no way to block entry visas even when there was information linking the individuals to terrorist groups.
And that is why the 9-11 hijackers were able to carry out their devastating attack without any notice by our intelligence agencies. The Clinton administration had also set up a “wall” between the CIA and the FBI so that sharing intelligence between them became illegal.
The 19 hijackers were made up of two working groups – the four pilots who would take over the cockpits and fly the planes into the buildings and the 14 enforcers who would kill the airline pilots and control the passengers.
The pilots included:
- Mohamed Atta, leader of the hijackers, who landed in Newark, N.J., from Prague on a visitor’s visa issued in Berlin on June 3, 1999. He crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center;
- Ziad al-Jarrah, the pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. He received his pilot’s license in Hamburg, Germany, and entered the United States on June 27 at Newark;
- Marwan al Shehhi, pilot of United Airlines Flight 175 which crashed into the North Tower. He arrived in the United States at Newark on May 29, 2000, on a tourist visa issued in the United Arab Emirates, and cleared customs in less than a half-hour;
- and Hani Honjour, pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon. He first entered the United States on a student visa in 1996, returned to Saudi Arabia, then traveled from the United Arab Emirates back to the United States in December 2000 on a student visa.
The 14 enforcers had little trouble getting tourist visas to the United States Even though they knew no English, exhibited none of the behavior of middle-class tourists, these unmarried young men received their visas without a hitch. The well-oiled revolving door was working just fine.
The “9-11Commission Report” states (p. 237):
The muscle hijackers began arriving in the United States in late April 2001. In most cases they traveled in pairs on tourist visas and entered the United States in Orlando or Miami, Florida; Washington D.C.; or New York. Those arriving in Florida were assisted by Atta and Shehhi, while Hazmi and Hanjour took care of the rest. By the end of June, 14 of the 15 muscle hijackers had crossed the Atlantic.
Thanks to Barney Frank, there was no way that the U.S. government could keep these sleeper members of al-Qaida out. Nor could they be tracked after arrival. They came with a lot of money, rented cars and apartments, took flying lessons, worked out at gyms, and took transcontinental flights to familiarize themselves with the interiors of the planes they would be hijacking and the routines of the pilots and cabin attendants.
Of course, 9-11 changed all that. The country had finally decided that the only way to fight terrorism was to find the terrorists and kill them before they could kill us. The result is that visas to the United States are no longer given to individuals suspected of being terrorists. But it took the lives of 3,000 innocent victims before the Frank Amendment could be abolished.