INS mum on embarrassing system snafu

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) continues to grapple with criticism about its IT infrastructure after an embarrassing incident this week in which student visas were granted to two of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists. Both men were killed in the terror attacks.

The visas were approved last summer for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi, who participated in the attacks, according to the government. But because of backlogs at the INS, which still does much of its student visa processing on paper, letters of approval didn’t arrive until this week to the flight schools where the men were enrolled.

An INS spokesman in Washington, D.C., refused yesterday to comment on the incident or procedures at the INS.

In a prepared statement, the INS confirmed that the two suspects had filed requests to change their nonimmigrant status from visitor to student. Both men would have received approval notices immediately after they were given their new status, according to the INS. Separate notices to the schools were issued later, after the approval data was manually entered at a facility that has a contract with the INS, according to the agency.

“It is important to emphasize that the decisions regarding the request to change status were made in the summer of 2001, prior to the tragic events of September 11,” the INS said in the statement. “It is equally important to recognize that when the applications were approved, the INS had no information indicating that Atta or Alshehhi had ties to terrorist organizations.”

In October, the U.S. General Accounting Office was highly critical of the INS’s procedures and IT infrastructure in a report to a House subcommittee. “The lack of adequate information technology systems has significantly impacted INS’s ability to perform its core missions,” said Richard Stana, director of justice issues at the GAO, in his statement to the subcommittee.

Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle harshly criticized the issuance of the student visas during a news conference in Washington, D.C.

“I, for the life of me, can’t understand how something like that can happen,” Daschle said. “It’s a major embarrassment, and it’s a recognition that we still have a lot of work to do.”