Bipartisan Commission Finds Pre-9/11 Gaps in Border Security Stemmed From Missed Opportunities, Not Lack of Powers

January 27, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Responding to the recent findings of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union today called upon Congress to reexamine many of the government policies adopted post 9/11, saying that the Commission found that it was an improper enforcement of powers already in place — and not a lack of broader law enforcement powers — that contributed to the terrorist attacks.

“Yesterday’s hearing is further evidence that civil liberties are not an obstacle to safety – our government had the tools in place to protect national security, and they failed to properly implement them,” said Timothy H. Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “We want our nation to be secure, but too many of the powers granted after 9/11 compromise our freedom without necessarily making us safer.”

The 10-member, bipartisan Commission is concluding its most recent set of public hearings on Capitol Hill today. Yesterday’s hearing included testimony from experts in border security. The panel included former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner James Ziglar, Customs and Border Protection commissioner Richard Bonner, and the Department of Defense’s special assistant for homeland security Peter Verga.

Highlights of the hearing include the disclosure that alleged al Qaeda military chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had received a proper visa from the United States government. Some of the 19 hijackers were able to enter the country with fraudulent documents, despite the fact that they faced scrutiny by customs and immigration inspectors.

The Commission also heard from inspector Jose E. Melendez-Perez, a 12-year veteran with the immigration service, who prevented Mohamed al Qahtani, a Saudi national, from entering the country. Authorities believe that al Qahtani may have been the 20th hijacker. Melendez-Perez cited al Qahtani’s lack of return ticket, limited funds and lack of hotel reservations as reasons for refusing him entry into the United States.

Immediately after the terrorist attacks – within 45 minutes – government authorities had a list of all the hijackers, and victims. A quick comparison between that list and government watch lists confirmed that two of the hijackers were listed as potential terrorist threats. Commissioner and former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey expressed his alarm that simple steps were not taken to prevent the attacks.

The Commission was established by Congress in late 2002 to examine the causes of 9/11, and to see what steps could have been taken to prevent the terrorist attacks. However, the Commission has faced many roadblocks by members of the Bush administration in its attempt to gain access to classified information. While the Commission is set to issue it’s final report by May 27th, a majority of commissioners are considering an extension of that deadline.

“While they did not specifically address the PATRIOT Act, the Commission’s findings show that government agencies did not effectively use the powers they already had,” the ACLU’s Edgar said. “Congress must act to restore the freedoms that we’ve lost while ensuring that our government has the proper tools needed to provide national security.”

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