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President Bush with National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell

President Bush’s top intelligence aide has confirmed that Iraqi terrorists have been captured coming into the United States from Mexico.

The confirmation comes from National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell, who talked about the situation in an interview with the El Paso Times recently.

“Coming up through the Mexican border is a path,” McConnell said. “Now, are they doing it in great numbers? No, because we’re finding them and we’re identifying them and we’ve got watch lists and we’re keeping them at bay.”

But, he said, “There are numerous situations where people are alive today because we caught them (terrorists).”

Intelligence officials say the numbers and details of such situations are classified, but McConnell pointed as an example to Mahmoud Youssef Kourani, who entered the United States through Tijuana, Mexico, in 2001, and later pleaded guilty to helping raise money for Hezbollah, which has been designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.

The goal, McConnell said, is for terrorists to gain admittance to the United States, and then produce “mass casualties.”

“You’ve got committed leadership. You’ve got a place to train. They’ve got trainers, and they’ve got recruits,” McConnell told the newspaper. “The key now is getting recruits in. So if your key is getting recruits in, how would you do that?”

McConnell’s office did reveal some numbers, during fiscal 2006, there were 14 Iraqi nationals caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally, while so far in 2007, that number is 16.

“Now some we caught, some we didn’t,” McConnell told the newspaper. “The ones that get in – what are they going to do? They’re going to write home. So it’s not rocket science; word will move around.”

Also revealed was that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection intercepted 60 Iraqis crossing the nation’s southwestern border in 2006 who were seeking asylum in the U.S., while that number so far in 2007 is 178.

The Times report said a U.S. intelligence analyst said there’s been evidence that human smugglers, or coyotes, are telling Iraqis to ask for amnesty if they are caught.

The typical scenario is this: Forged documents are used to get an Iraqi into a country in South or Central America. Since travel from country to country is allowed without visas in many locations there, they work their way north to the U.S. border.

McConnell told the newspaper the numbers are classified, but there have been a relatively small number of people with known links to terrorist groups who have been caught at that point.

Kourani, for example, apparently paid a Mexican Consulate official in Lebanon $3,000 for a Mexican visa and then was smuggled into the United States in the trunk of a car.

He was sentenced to more than four years in prison after admitting he helped raise funds for Hezbollah.

When the newspaper asked U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, about the situation, he said, “It’s not something we would talk about.”

“We have had intelligence about al-Qaida identifying Latin America as a potential or prospective area where they could come through, but frankly, I’m surprised that the director would make definitive statements like that because, even if it were true, you wouldn’t want to publicize that,” Reyes told the Times.

McConnell was senior vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton, focusing on intelligence and national security, before being appointed to his current post by Bush in February.

He previously was the director of the National Security Agency and served as a member of the Director of Central Intelligence senior leadership team before then.

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