Customs slip-ups let hijackers into U.S., commission says
Online Exclusive, Jan 27 2004
A border agent said Monday that the suspected ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks raised enough red flags at customs -- including having the wrong student visa -- that he should been prevented from entering the United States.
Customs agent Jose E. Melendez-Perez, testifying at a public hearing on border and aviation security as part of the 9/11 Commisison hearings, said lead hijacker Mohamed Atta's age and impeccable clothes also appeared to contradict his story about being a student.
Atta's improper entry is one of a series of errors by government officials prior to Sept. 11 that could have prevented the attacks, the independent commission said Monday.
Some of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were allowed into the country despite carrying fraudulent visas and being questioned by customs agents, the commission said.
"Our government did not fully exploit al-Qaida's travel vulnerabilities," the commission said at the start of a two-day public hearing on border and aviation security.
Investigators say at least two and as many as eight of the hijackers had fraudulent visas. They also found that at least six of the hijackers violated immigration laws by overstaying their visas or failing to attend the English language school for which their visas were issued.
Today's hearing will focus on vulnerabilities and security failures within the nation's aviation system and the response to the hijackings that killed more than 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The 10-member, bipartisan commission has been bogged down by disputes with the Bush administration and New York City officials over access to documents and witnesses.
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