New Details of the al Qaeda Plot

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The commission's report says before 9/11, border controls were focused on keeping out illegal workers, not terrorists. Most of the hijackers who got in were Saudis, and Saudi citizens rarely overstayed their visas or tried to work illegally. Government officials have denied that Saudis got special treatment when they applied for visas. But Melendez-Perez testified that once they got to the United States, Saudis did get special treatment from customs agents.

"Matter of fact," he said, "the day that I was working on this particular incident, one of my co-workers stated to me, 'You're going to get into trouble because you're trying to refuse a Saudi.'"

Government officials also said after September 11, that customs and immigration officials could not have stopped the other 19 hijackers from entering, because there was nothing wrong with their papers.

The staff report challenges that assertion, explaining,"The director of the FBI testified that 'each of the hijackers came easily and lawfully from abroad.' The director of Central Intelligence described 17 of the 19 hijackers as 'clean.' We believe the information we have provided today gives the Commission the opportunity to reevaluate those statements."

The report says some of the hijackers made false statements on their visa applications, manipulated their passports in a fraudulent manner, made false statements to border officials, or violated immigration laws once in the United States. Some were known al Qaeda operatives. U.S. officials failed to notice these clues.

The 9/11 Commission concluded that more careful screening of travelers and their documents is a key to preventing terrorism. Its report says preventing terrorists from traveling freely is at least as important as drying up their financial resources.

Since 9/11, border controls have been strengthened, but former immigration and customs officials testified that if men like the 19 hijackers tried to enter the country today, most of them would still get in.

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