The U.S. Intelligence Bill: Is America Safer?

7 MINS READDec 11, 2004 | 02:55 GMT

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Dec. 8 that the U.S. intelligence reform bill passed by both houses of Congress "will make America safer." One of the bill's major opponents, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), seems not so optimistic. He said the measure fails to comprehensively address the security problems exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks. Specifically, Sensenbrenner said, "Terrorists have exploited vulnerabilities in our (political) asylum system and in the issuance of driver's licenses." He said the failure to include "strong provisions ... will keep Americans unnecessarily at risk."

STRATFOR agrees. Terrorists have exploited vulnerabilities in the U.S. political asylum system and in the way driver's licenses and state identification cards are issued. A look at a few cases highlights these serious vulnerabilities and reveals how terrorists have exploited them.

On Sept. 1, 1992, Ahmed Ajaj and Abdul Basit Karim (also know as Ramzi Yousef) arrived at New York's Kennedy Airport. A few days earlier, the pair had left the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan — a camp financed and run by a then-little-known-militant named Osama bin Laden — and made their way to Peshawar, Pakistan, where they stayed at a guesthouse owned by bin Laden.

In Peshawar, they visited a travel agency to arrange flights to the United States using passports "donated" by fellow jihadists, who were citizens of nations that did not require visas to enter the United States. Ajaj used a Swedish passport in the name Khurram Khan and Basit used a British passport in the name Mohamed Azan. The two passports had been "photo-subbed," meaning that their original photographs had been replaced with photos of Ajaj and Basit.

The two militants sat together on the flight from Peshawar to Karachi, but sat apart on the flight from Karachi to New York. Sometime after boarding the flight to Kennedy Airport, Basit gave his British passport and his boarding pass to Ajaj for safekeeping.

Upon entering the immigration inspection area, Ajaj was stopped by an alert inspector who noticed that the photograph in the Swedish passport had been altered. A secondary inspection determined that Ajaj possessed several other passports, including the British passport Basit used, and a large collection of manuals and videos on making bombs. Ajaj requested asylum, but instead was detained as a danger to the United States and charged with passport fraud. Eventually he entered a plea of guilty to a charge of passport fraud and was sentenced to six months' confinement. Basit, meanwhile, showed a clean Iraqi passport in the name of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef — the passport did not have a stamp indicating it had been used to exit Pakistan — and claimed political asylum. Basit was released on his own recognizance pending an asylum hearing. He never appeared for that hearing. Ramzi, of course, went on to plan the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. In 1994, Algerian Ahmed Ressam used the same process to enter Canada. Ressam flew from France to Montreal using a photo-subbed French passport. When the fraud was detected, he requested asylum and was released pending a hearing. Ressam then obtained a stolen, blank baptismal certificate and completed it in the name Benni Antoine Noris. He used the certificate to obtain a Canadian passport, which he used to travel to Afghanistan, where he trained at a bin Laden camp. Ressam then returned to Canada. On Dec. 14, 1999, Ressam attempted to use the fraudulently obtained passport to enter the United States via a ferry from Victoria, British Colombia. An alert U.S. Customs inspector arrested him. When his car was searched, more than 130 pounds of explosives were discovered in the trunk. Ressam had planned to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has made a major effort to tighten the way asylum cases are handled. The agency is training immigration inspectors and agents to focus not only on drug smugglers and potential immigrants, but also to be on the look out for terrorists. The sheer volume of people making asylum claims, however, makes it possible for terrorists to slip through. Furthermore, the DHS has the capacity to temporarily detain only a limited number of people at any given time, and must release the others pending a determination of their status. Another factor to consider is that some people entering the United States from countries where oppression is real could be granted asylum for that reason — even though they seek to enter the country for terrorist purposes. Despite DHS efforts, illegal immigrants continue to enter the United States in droves. Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson said on Aug. 10 that more than 42,000 "third country" — not Mexican — illegal immigrants were apprehended over a 16-month period along the southwest border alone. Because of the shortage of detention space, 28,000 of those detained were given notice to appear in immigration court. Of those, he said, "over 90 percent failed to show." It does not seem much of a stretch to assume that terrorists could take advantage of these gaps in the system. Although passports are the most crucial documents necessary for foreign travelers entering the United States, driver's licenses are needed to function in the country. They are, in fact, the closet thing to a U.S. national identity card. However, driver's licenses are issued by each state, and the process for getting one differs greatly among the states. Illegal immigrants who live and work in the United States know how to work the system to get driver's licenses. Some states make it easier to get licenses than others, and within the states are some departments of motor vehicles — and specific workers — known to be more lenient. Corrupt DMV employees and an entire industry that is devoted to producing counterfeit identification documents further compound these problems. This is the environment that allowed the Sept. 11 hijackers to obtain driver's licenses or state identification cards — after they successfully slipped through the U.S. State Department's visa system and immigration inspection. They used these cards to open bank accounts, rent apartments — and board aircraft. Hijackers Hanni Hanjour and Khalid al-Midhar reportedly obtained Virginia identification cards by hiring an illegal immigrant to co-sign their residency forms and list his address as theirs. The following day, Hanjour and al-Midhar sponsored Salem al-Hamzi and Majed Moqed when they obtained their Virginia identification cards. In addition to the Virginia identification cards, the group also held driver's licenses and identification cards from Florida, California and New Jersey. In all, the group of 19 terrorists amassed an incredible total of 63 driver's licenses and identification cards. A review of the arrests of al Qaeda-linked jihadists in the United States and abroad indicates that nearly all of them have committed some sort of document fraud. If there is a bright spot for anti-terrorism agents in all of this, it is that since a large number of terrorism suspects use document fraud to facilitate financial fraud, the chances of catching the suspects increase. A search-and-arrest warrant in either a document fraud or financial fraud case allows the agents to thoroughly search the residence of a suspect — even when there is not enough evidence to prove they are planning or have committed an act of terrorism. Such a search can uncover evidence of a terrorist plot or help identify other suspected militants. If these examples shed any light on the U.S. security risks posed by the use of fraudulent documents, then Sensenbrenner's arguments makes perfect — well, sense. The reforms passed in the intelligence bill will not do much to make the United States a safer place to live.

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