“Little Doors” For Flying Terrorists

Two questions have been left unanswered following last week’s announcement by Homeland Security Department head Tom Ridge that he has temporarily suspended travel programs allowing foreigners to fly into our country without U.S. visas:

  1. Why did it take so bloody long?
  2. Why hasn’t all visa-free foreign air travel been ended permanently?

The visa is supposed to be our government’s best method for keeping out foreign menaces. Law-enforcement agents consider it the most important national security screening mechanism. Yet, airline and tourism lobbyists, and their water-carriers in Washington, have poked dangerous holes in the system to benefit the $590 billion travel industry.

Federal officials say last week’s suspension of two visa-less travel programs was based on “new,” “specific,” and “credible” intelligence indicating that al Qaeda terrorists might exploit them. But there’s nothing new about the widely-known lack of security surrounding these terrorist-friendly airline security loopholes. Eleven months ago, I reported on the specific use of the Transit Without a Visa (TWOV) program by suspected Middle Eastern terrorists.

According to an internal Justice Department memo I obtained last summer, federal anti-terrorism investigators launched “Operation LAX Lounge,” an investigation based on information that four individuals were using the TWOV program to smuggle illegal aliens, many of whom are Middle Eastern males, into the United States at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

Two of the four involved in the smuggling operation were Jordanian nationals who worked as LAX contract security guards. Another was a Social Security Administration official married to one of the guards. They were convicted of collaborating to smuggle transiting passengers out of the airport and helping approximately 1,000 individuals — mostly of Middle Eastern descent — obtain fraudulent Social Security cards between 1998-2000.

Some of the TWOV passengers let free by the Jordanians at LAX are on the federal immigration and State Department watch list of terrorist suspects. A few of these fugitive passengers were traced to New York City and arrested last July, but most remain at large.

I am posting the June 25, 2002, memo — along with a 19-page list of the nearly 1,000 individuals who fraudulently obtained Social Security numbers through the smuggling ring.

Despite uncovering this plot a year ago, homeland security officials did absolutely nothing to stop the TWOV program until last week. In the meantime, more than a million airline passengers (accounting for roughly five percent of all foreign nationals entering the country by plane) were routed to American airport hubs under the TWOV program. Citizens from some Middle East state sponsors of terror, including Iraq, Iran, Libya and Sudan, were not eligible. However, foreign nationals from several terrorist-exporting countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan, were free to participate.

The program waived visa requirements for passengers who were ostensibly passing briefly through the U.S. on their way to final destinations abroad. Airlines were responsible for guarding and escorting passengers in transit, and were supposedly liable for damages when they couldn’t confirm that program participants have actually departed the country. But the fines were negligible.

Moreover, since the Immigration and Naturalization Service did not maintain arrival and departure records on a majority of these transiting passengers prior to the program’s suspension — and since the agency’s interior-enforcement staff remains overwhelmed and understaffed — the airlines were essentially off the hook for passengers who left the airports and never came back.

Secretary Ridge, explaining the feds’ year-long inaction on NBC’s “Meet The Press” last week, pooh-poohed the TWOV program as “a little door.” While patting himself on the back for closing the small opening temporarily, Ridge’s department is now quietly soliciting advice from the airline and travel industries on how to restore the program. And Ridge has assured travel industry money-grubbers that it won’t touch an even larger door into the U.S. — the Visa Waiver Program — for foreign travelers from more than two-dozen nations.

How many of these visa-free travelers over the past year violated program requirements, overstayed their visits, and remain in the country today doing God knows what? The feds have no idea.

Homeland security: Still selling out . . . and flying blind.

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