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Right Opinion

Too Little, Too Late: A Lesson in Border Security

Terence Jeffrey · Jan. 3, 2019

Khalid al-Mihdhar landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on July 4, 2001.

This was his second trip to the United States, on his second visa, with the second Saudi passport he had used to enter this country in less than two years.

Two months later, he boarded American Airlines Flight 77.

Al-Mihdhar’s story revealed the imperfection of U.S. border security — at legal ports of entry.

The Saudis had issued al-Mihdhar a new passport on April 6, 1999. The next day, in Jeddah, according to a staff report of the 9/11 Commission, he applied for a B-1/B-2 (tourist/business) visa to visit the United States.

Three days before that, another al Qaeda terrorist, Nawaf al-Hazmi, also applied in Jeddah for a B-1/B-2 visa.

Al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar would become travel companions.

But before they could get to the United States, the U.S. intelligence community briefly tracked them.

In 2004, the Justice Department inspector general released a report titled “A Review of the FBI’s Handling of Intelligence Information Related to the September 11 Attacks.”

A section in this report is headlined “NSA provides intelligence regarding planned travel by al Qaeda operatives to Malaysia.” It says: “The communications indicated that several members of an ‘operational cadre’ were planning to travel to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early January 2000. Analysis of the communications revealed that persons named Nawaf, Khalid and Salem were involved.”

A footnote reads: “The NSA has additional information in its database further identifying ‘Nawaf’ as Nawaf al-Hazmi, a friend of Khalid. However, the NSA informed the OIG that it was not asked to conduct research on these individuals at that time, and it did not uncover that information on Hazmi.”

“The NSA’s reporting about these communications was sent, among other places, to FBI Headquarters, the FBI’s Washington and New York Field Offices, and the CIA’s CTC,” said the IG report. “At the FBI, this information appeared in the daily threat update to the Director on January 4, 2000.”

The CIA then determined “Khalid” was al-Mihdhar.

“A CIA desk officer working in the Bin Laden Unit who we call ‘Michelle’ determined that there were links between these people and Al Qaeda as well as the 1998 East African embassy bombings,” said the IG report.

“In addition,” it said, “the CIA identified ‘Khalid’ as Khalid al-Mihdhar.”

The IG report indicates al-Mihdhar arrived at a redacted location on Jan. 5, 2000, with a passport that “contained a valid U.S. visa.” This, of course, was the visa he had secured in Jeddah in April 1999.

“Mihdhar’s passport was photocopied and sent to CIA Headquarters,” said the IG report.

Then-CIA Director George Tenet explained what happened next in written testimony he presented to a joint hearing of the House and Senate intelligence committees on Oct. 17, 2002.

“In early January 2000, we managed to obtain a photocopy of al-Mihdhar’s passport as he traveled to Kuala Lumpur,” Tenet said. “It showed a US multiple-entry visa issued in Jeddah on 7 April 1999 and expiring on 6 April 2000.”

“We had at that point the level of detail needed to watchlist him — that is, to nominate him to State Department for refusal of entry into the US or to deny him another visa,” Tenet said. “Our officers remained focused on the surveillance operation, and did not do this.”

Although the U.S. intelligence community had al-Mihdhar under surveillance in 2000 when he was in Kuala Lumpur with al-Hazmi, it did not realize until that March that al-Hazmi had flown to the United States only a week later. Nor did it realize for more than a year and a half that al-Mihdhar had flown to the United States with him — or that al-Mihdhar had left the United States in June 2000, only to return on July 4, 2001.

“In fact,” said the IG report, “Mihdhar had travelled to the U.S. with Hazmi on January 15, 2000. This fact was not discovered by anyone in the Intelligence Community until August 2001.”

What happened in the meantime?

“Al-Mihdhar departed the U.S. on 10 June 2000 and obtained a new passport and US visa, possibly for operational security reasons,” Tenet told the intelligence committees.

“Al-Mihdhar applied for this new US visa in Jeddah in 13 June and stated that he had never travelled to the US before,” said Tenet. “On 4 July 2001, he returned to the US, entering in New York.

"During August 2001, CIA had become increasingly concerned about a major terrorist attack on US interests, and I directed a review of our files to identify potential threats. CTC reviewed its holdings on al-Mihdhar because of his connections to other terrorists. In the course of that review, CTC found that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi had entered the U.S. on 15 January 2000. It determined that al-Mihdhar departed the U.S. on 10 June 2000 and reentered on 4 July 2001. CTC found no record of al-Hazmi’s departure from the U.S.”

CIA then sounded the alarm.

On 23 August 2001, the “CIA sent a message — marked ‘immediate’ — to the Department of State, INS, Customs and the FBI requesting to enter al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, Bin Laden-related individuals, into VISA/VIPER, TIPOFF and TECS,” Tenet said. “The message said that CIA recommends that al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi be watchlisted immediately.”

It was too late.

Yet the U.S. government had a better idea in August 2001 who al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were than they do anyone who illegally crossed our border yesterday and was not caught by the Border Patrol.

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