Keeping Terror Out

Keeping Terror Out

Mini Teaser: If gardeners and housemaids can cross our porous borders, so can Al-Qaeda operatives.

by Author(s): Mark Krikorian

Unfortunately, our immigration response to the wake-up call delivered by the 9/11 attacks has been piecemeal and poorly coordinated. Specific initiatives that should have been set in motion years ago have finally begun to be enacted, but there is an ad hoc feel to our response, a sense that bureaucrats in the Justice and Homeland Security departments are searching for ways to tighten up immigration controls that will not alienate one or another of a bevy of special interest groups.

Rather than having federal employees cast about for whatever enforcement measures they feel they can get away with politically, we need a strategic assessment of what an effective immigration-control system would look like.

Homeland Security Begins Abroad

To extend the missile defense analogy, there are three layers of immigration control, comparable to the three phases of a ballistic missile's flight: boost, midcourse and terminal. In immigration the layers are overseas, at the borders and inside the country. But unlike existing missile defense systems, the redundancy built into our immigration control system permits us repeated opportunities to exclude or apprehend enemy operatives.

Entry into America by foreigners is not a right but a privilege, granted exclusively at the discretion of the American people. The first agency that exercises that discretion is the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, whose officers make the all-important decisions about who gets a visa. Consular Affairs is, in effect, America's other Border Patrol.4 In September 2003, DHS Under Secretary Asa Hutchinson described the visa process as "forward-based defense" against terrorists and criminals.

The visa filter is especially important because the closer an alien comes to the United States the more difficult it is to exclude him. There is relatively little problem, practically or politically, in rejecting a foreign visa applicant living abroad. Once a person presents himself at a port of entry, it becomes more difficult to turn him back, although the immigration inspector theoretically has a free hand to do so. Most difficult of all is finding and removing people who have actually been admitted; not only is there no physical chokepoint where aliens can be controlled, but even the most superficial connections with American citizens or institutions can lead to vocal protests against enforcement of the law.

Even before 9/11, some improvements had been made to the first layer of immigration security: visas were made machine-readable and more difficult to forge than in the past, and the "watch list" of people who should not be granted visas was computerized, replacing the old microfiche-based system in place until just a few years ago.

Since the attacks, further improvements have taken place. The State Department has instituted the Biometric Visa Program at several consular posts and is preparing to meet a statutory deadline later this year for all visas to have biometric data, in the form of fingerprints and photographs. What's more, under a memorandum of understanding signed last fall, DHS assumed oversight and veto authority over the issuance of visas, and now has personnel overseeing visa officers in a number of consular posts overseas, including in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan and the UAE.

Despite improvements, the most important flaw in the visa filter still exists: the State Department remains in charge of issuing visas. State has a corporate culture of diplomacy, geared toward currying favor with foreign governments. In the context of visa issuance, this has fostered a "customer-service" approach, which sees the foreign visa applicant as the customer who needs to be satisfied. The attitude in management is summed up by the catchphrase of the former U.S. consul general in Saudi Arabia: "People gotta have their visas!"5 Such an approach views high visa-refusal rates as a political problem, rather than an indicator of proper vigilance.

Nor will oversight of visa officers by DHS officials be an adequate antidote. As long as the decisions about raises, promotions and future assignments for visa officers are made by the State Department, the culture of diplomacy will win out over the culture of law enforcement. In the end, the only remedy may be to remove the visa function from the State Department altogether.

Order at the Border

The next layer of immigration security is the border, which has two elements: "ports of entry", which are the points where people traveling by land, sea or air enter the United States; and the stretches between those entry points. The first are staffed by inspectors working for DHS's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the second monitored by the Border Patrol and the Coast Guard, both now also part of DHS.

This is another important chokepoint, as almost all of the 48 Al-Qaeda operatives who committed terrorist acts through 2001 had had contact with immigration inspectors. But here, too, the system failed to do its job. For instance, Mohammed Atta was permitted to re-enter the country in January 2001 even though he had overstayed his visa the last time. Also, before 9/11 hijacker Khalid Al-Midhar's second trip to the United States, the CIA learned that he had been involved in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole--but it took months for his name to be placed on the watch list used by airport inspectors, and by then he had already entered the country. And in any case, there still are twelve separate watch lists, maintained by nine different government agencies.

Political considerations fostered a dangerous culture of permissiveness in airport inspections. Bowing to complaints from airlines and the travel industry, Congress in 1990 required that incoming planes be cleared within 45 minutes, reinforcing the notion that the border was a nuisance to be evaded rather than a vital security tool. And the Orlando immigration inspector who turned back a Saudi national--Al-Qahtani, now believed to have been a part of the 9/11 plot--was well aware that he was taking a career risk, since Saudis were supposed to be treated even more permissively than other foreign nationals seeking entry.

There were also failures between the ports of entry. Abdelghani Meskini and Abdel Hakim Tizegha, both part of the Mil-lennium Plot that included Ahmed Ressam, first entered the country as stowaways on ships that docked at U.S. ports. Tizegha later moved to Canada and then returned to the United States by sneaking across the land border. And of course, Abu Mezer, though successfully apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol, was later released.

And finally, perhaps the biggest defect in this layer of security is the lack of effective tracking of departures. Without exit controls, there is no way to know who has overstayed his visa. This is especially important because most illegal alien terrorists have been overstayers. The opportunities for failure are numerous and the system is so dysfunctional that the INS's own statistics division declared that it was no longer possible to estimate the number of people who have overstayed their visas.

Certainly, there have been real improvements since 9/11. The us-visit system has begun to be implemented, with arriving visa-holders being digitally photographed and having their index fingerprints scanned; this will eventually grow into a "check in/check out" system to track them and other foreign visitors. Also, the 45-minute maximum for clearing foreign travelers has been repealed. Lastly, all foreign carriers are now required to forward their passenger manifests to immigration before the plane arrives.

But despite these and other improvements in the mechanics of border management, the same underlying problem exists here as in the visa process: lack of political seriousness about the security importance of immigration control. The Coast Guard, for instance, still considers the interdiction of illegal aliens a "nonsecurity" mission. More importantly, pressure to expedite entry at the expense of security persists; a DHS memo leaked in January outlined how the us-visit system would be suspended if lines at airports grew too long. And, to avoid complaints from businesses in Detroit, Buffalo, and elsewhere, most Canadian visitors have been exempted from the requirements of the us-visit system.

Also, there is continued resistance to using the military to back up the Border Patrol--resistance that predates the concern for overstretch caused by the occupation of Iraq. But controlling the Mexican border, apart from the other benefits it would produce, is an important security objective; at least two major rings have been uncovered which smuggled Middle Easterners into the United States via Mexico, with help from corrupt Mexican government employees. At least one terrorist has entered this way: Mahmoud Kourani, brother of Hizballah's chief of military security in southern Lebanon, described in a federal indictment as "a member, fighter, recruiter and fund-raiser for Hizballah."

Safety Through Redundancy

The third layer of immigration security--the terminal phase, in missile defense jargon--is interior enforcement. Here, again, ordinary immigration control can be a powerful security tool. Of the 48 Al-Qaeda operatives, nearly half were either illegal aliens at the time of their crimes or had violated immigration laws at some point prior to their terrorist acts.

Many of these terrorists lived, worked, opened bank accounts and received driver's licenses with little or no difficulty. Because such a large percentage of terrorists violated immigration laws, enforcing the law would be extremely helpful in disrupting and preventing terrorist attacks.

Essay Types: Essay