At least 13 of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers were never interviewed by
U.S. consular officials before being granted visas to enter the United
States, according to a congressional report issued yesterday. The finding
contradicts previous assurances from the State Department that most of
them had been thoroughly screened.
The General Accounting Office also found that, for 15 hijackers whose
applications could be found, none had filled in the documents properly.
Overall, few applicants from Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates were
required to submit to interviews.
The GAO added that more than a year after the attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon, the State Department still does not
adequately train consular officials and has yet to establish clear
guidelines on reviewing visa applications.
Attempts to change have been hobbled by a dispute between the State and
Justice departments, which disagree about the evidence required to bar
suspected terrorists from the United States, according to the report.
"Weaknesses remain in visa policies and procedures that limit the
effectiveness of the visa process as an antiterrorism tool," the study
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined to comment
yesterday on specifics of the report because department officials had not
"We look forward to any suggestions the General Accounting Office has
about how we can improve and strengthen the visa process, something we've
been trying to do since September 11th," Boucher said.
Boucher said ensuring that applications were properly filled out "was
one of the things that should have been done that wasn't done."
The findings by GAO, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress,
represent the latest evidence of problems within the State Department's
visa program, which has been criticized as lax and focused on diplomatic
concerns. Earlier this year, the chief of the department's Bureau of
Consular Affairs was fired, and a program permitting travel agents in
Saudi Arabia to forward visa applications was scrapped.
State Department officials said previously that 12 of the Sept. 11
hijackers from Saudi Arabia had been interviewed by consular officials,
and that the others probably would not have been denied if they had been
interviewed. None of the hijackers' names was included on a terrorist
watch list before their entry into the United States.
The GAO report found that all 15 of the hijackers from Saudi Arabia
applied for visas in Jeddah or Riyadh; two others applied in their native
United Arab Emirates. The remaining two, including ringleader Mohamed
Atta, an Egyptian citizen, applied as "third-country" applicants in
None of 18 separate visa applications by 15 of the hijackers was
completed properly, the report said. Thirteen of the 15, who were from
Saudi Arabia or UAE, were never interviewed before being approved for a
visa, the report found. Investigators were unable to review the
applications for four other hijackers, including Atta, because they were
The GAO report provides a revealing glimpse into a continuing feud
between officials at State and Justice over visa policy. Robert F.
Diegelman, an acting assistant attorney general, told GAO investigators in
a letter that the State Department believes that an applicant must be
granted a visa unless there is "specific evidence of activities or
associations" linking the applicant to terrorists, and that placement on a
terrorist tracking list alone is insufficient.
Justice officials say U.S. law "places the burden of proof on the
applicant to establish his admissibility," Diegelman wrote.