By S. T. Karnick
Within a day after last Tuesday's attacks on the World Trade Center and prominent government targets, federal authorities had already identified almost all the direct perpetrators and numerous accomplices in several cities who had helped in planning and execution. Hundreds of FBI agents accumulated information "on those who stood out: who they were, where they stayed, who they called, who sponsored them, what phone calls they made," said a former head of the agency's New York office.( LA Times, September 13, Investigators Identify 50 Terrorists Tied to Plot) Agents called the families of all those on the passenger lists and looked at bank, credit card, and telephone records of those who could not be vouched for, also checking immigration records of any noncitizens.
The results of the investigation are impressive. But the damage was already done, and it is important to know why such information was not collected in time to prevent the Black Tuesday atrocity. Federal agencies had long known of the American terrorist cells associated with Osama bin Laden, such as the one in Boston. But they did nothing to break them up and deport the conspirators, as any sensible people would, or even to monitor them effectively enough to prevent the Tuesday massacre.
Federal officials have reported that the hijackers were supported by confederates in Newark, Boston, and Virginia, who provided money, rental cars, credit cards, lodging, and other such aid. As many as fifty people, perhaps more, were directly involved in this plot, yet not one of them was under sufficient surveillance to cause officials to figure out that something might be up. Such negligence boggles the mind.
As reported in the New York Times, "government officials disclosed that at least two people believed to be associates of Mr. bin Laden, and who may have been involved in the attack, entered the United States recently, slipping into the country before the Immigration and Naturalization Service was told to prevent their entry."(NYT, September 13, 2001, Thursday, AFTER THE ATTACKS: THE INVESTIGATION; BIN LADEN TIE CITED [Pay archive.]) A senior federal official said that American intelligence organizations had recently told the INS to place on a watch list several people believed to be linked to bin Laden, to prevent them from entering the United States. "There was intelligence that these guys were potential problems," the official said. Immigration officers, however, told them that two of them were already in the United States, and the FBI subsequently failed to find them. The government source said that they may have been involved in the attacks.
The hijack teams included pilots trained in the United States, at least two of whom received training at a commercial flight school in Florida. These latter entered the country legally, as far as is now known, but they surely had direct or at least secondhand contact with people whom the authorities should have been keeping under close surveillance. The president of the Florida flight school that may have trained two of the hijackers turned over their files and copies of the students' passports the day after the attack, but the FBI does not seem to have seen fit to collect such information routinely. Had they done so, and had they accumulated similar data about other noncitizens living in the United States, their computers might easily have found that some of these people were associated with associates of the bin Laden group.
In fact, federal authorities had already known for some time that there were very active terrorist cells, including some associated with bin Laden, operating on U.S. soil. Jordanian authorities accused two immigrant Boston cab drivers, Bassam A. Kanj and Raed Hijazi, of plotting terrorist attacks on American and Israeli tourists in Jordan during that country's millennium celebrations. Hijazi, suspected leader of the millennium plot, is now in Jordan under sentence of death, and Kanj died leading an attack in Lebanon. Hijazi lived in Boston until late 1998, and Kanj lived in that same city for seventeen years.
Think of it: international terrorists and groups of people who have declared a holy war against the United States have been operating freely on our nation's soil for many years. Federal investigative agencies knew about this but did not manage to deport these people, and the American public knew little or nothing about these dangerous fanatics in our midst.
There is, moreover, no legal impediment to monitoring these people. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act even authorizes electronic surveillance of people whom the authorities have probable cause to believe are agents of a foreign powers. And we certainly have sufficient personnel to dedicate to this all-important work, as the instant success of the past two days' investigations and the enormity of the atrocity both show.
Many, if not most, public officials and journalists tend to view the Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS) not as a gatekeeper but as an immigrant-recruiting organization. Commentators have recently pointed out that the INS is not a police service, and there are good reasons for not making it into one. (The strongest being that we already have enough federal police.) But the ease with which the Black Tuesday terrorists entered the country and moved about in learning the skills with which to destroy huge buildings and kill thousands of people surely call for a rethinking of the duties of the INS. Preventing potential terrorists from such free access to American soil and technologies will require, at a minimum, logical admission-preference standards for immigrants to the United States. Clearly, the current standards should be scrapped and replaced with ones that emphasize job skills, English-language proficiency, and cultural compatibility, and the INS should be assigned the task of keeping close watch over exactly what our noncitizen guests are up to while they reside on American soil. That is a job that only Congress can do, and it had better act soon, before more atrocities transpire.
Enforcing those standards would be the job of a rejuvenated INS, and it will be important for both Congress and the INS to make sure that the burdens fall where they historically did before 1965-upon the prospective immigrants rather than on current citizens. Proposals for a national I.D. card, greater harassment of U.S. citizens traveling across the border, and the like fail that test completely and should be rejected. Those who wish to benefit from long-term access to America should be happy to pay the price of admission, and current citizens should be expected to benefit from their presence, not be burdened by it. Establishing such an approach, however, will require a greater respect for the distinction between citizenship and noncitizen status.
The only thing standing in the way, it seems, is the nation's regnant multiculturalist philosophy, which discourages us from treating noncitizens differently from citizens. The courts, Congress, and presidential administrations have increasingly treated foreign nationals on U.S. soil as if they had all the civil rights of American citizens. But they certainly do not. Human rights, yes, but civil rights, no.
Of course, nearly all noncitizens living in the United States are perfectly law-abiding people who want only to succeed like their neighbors, and we should welcome them and admire them for their pluck and determination. Nonetheless, until they are willing to take the step of renouncing citizenship with their birth countries and assume American citizenship, they cannot and must not be accorded all the rights of full American citizens. If, as seems all but certain, the Black Tuesday atrocity was perpetrated by foreigners with the aid and comfort of noncitizen allies entrenched on U.S. soil, our understanding of the rights of noncitizens in the United States must change significantly, and right away. We should surely be cautious, humane, and sensitive in our monitoring of our noncitizen guests. But our first priority must be the safety of the American people.
In light of Tuesday's attack, any thought of opening our borders further, as has been discussed recently, should be put on indefinite hold - if not scuttled altogether on principle. Greater surveillance of both foreign and domestic radical groups will be an essential part of any long-term solution. Recognizing the huge difference between the rights of American citizens and those of foreigners on our soil is a long-overdue, utterly necessary first step.
September 25, 2001