Documenting Our Security

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 19, 2004

Armed with fictitious driver’s licenses and birth certificates created with an off-the-shelf computer program, the individuals began their mission to illegally enter the United States through Mexico and Canada.

Each would successfully complete their mission, and at each port of entry, INS and U.S. Customs Service officials would fail to question the authenticity of the counterfeit documents.

On two occasions, INS officials would not ask for or inspect any identification documents. On another occasion an individual would be allowed to walk across a major border checkpoint without being stopped or inspected by any government official.

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At a crossing on the US-Mexico border, an INS inspector would ask an individual if he was a U.S. citizen and whether he had brought anything across the border from Mexico. Responding that he was a U.S. citizen and that he was not bringing anything into the United States, the inspector would allow him to proceed without requiring any proof of identity.

The preceding reads like a passage from the recently released report of the 9/11 Commission.

Unfortunately, it is not the account of the months leading up to the September 11 hijacking, but the reports of undercover federal agents over a year after 9/11.

Last week as I traveled back to Washington for hearings to address the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, these incidents weighed heavily on my mind.

While the Commission addressed important failures in intelligence, what many of us have known and advocated for years was under addressed: the attack did not have to be detected to be prevented. The visa applications of all the hijackers had flaws that should have resulted in their rejection or delay.

At the time of the attack, three of the four terrorist pilots were in violation of their immigration status.

If our nation’s immigration laws had been properly applied, most of the hijackers never would have gotten into the United States, and those who ultimately did, could not have accomplished their mission.

According to the 9/11 Commission report, 500 million people annually cross U.S. borders.

Of that, 330 million are non-citizens. About 500,000 enter illegally without inspection.

The panel believes that 15 of the 19 hijackers were potentially vulnerable to interception by border authorities.

This is a powerful statement to those who have long failed to recognize the inexorable link between national security and immigration reform.

Immigration reform is not the only area of weakness that remains under acknowledged in the wake of 9/11. In August 2001, Hani Hanjour went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Springfield, VA, where he used a false address to obtain an identification card. Hanjour would wind up flying into the Pentagon. The same day, Khalid Almihdhar went to the same Virginia DMV and used false information to obtain his license. The next day, Hanjour and Almihdhar used their new cards to attest that a third 9-11 hijacker, Majed Moqess, lived in Virgina. That allowed Moqess to get an identification card. That same day, they got an ID for a fourth hijacker, Salem Alhamzi, in exactly the same way.

Ultimately, a month later when 19 al Qaeda operatives slipped into airports in Boston, Newark, and Washington, DC, seven of them carried authentic Virginia identification cards fraudulently obtained from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

While Virginia moved swiftly to close the vulnerabilities that made this possible, loopholes remain across the nation. Recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) sent three undercover agents into separate offices of the California DMV – each with false identification which they had manufactured themselves on a desktop computer using PhotoShop. According to the GAO, the documents should have been easily identified as forgeries. Each of the three undercover agents used the same fake name. Yet each was issued a California driver’s license -all based on the same poor quality forged documents, and all using exactly the same name.

In other investigations, GAO agents found that even employees who spotted irregular documents often returned them to applicants instead of seizing them or notifying authorities of attempted fraud, as many states require. In one case, a worker who rejected documents suggested the applicant try another state office.

For all of the technology we have added to identification documents, from holograms to bar codes to digital photos, nothing can replace pure and simple vigilance and common sense.

As the 9/11 Commission pointed out: &uot;For terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons.&uot;

To meet this terrorist threat, we need to get better, more reliable identification information from our Customs and Immigration inspectors to state DMVs, to the Transportation Security Administration, and to the law enforcement, security personnel, and civilians who need it to ensure our safety. We need uniform minimum standards to obtain government identification documents, board aircraft, and to purchase dangerous weapons.

While better technology and increased intelligence sharing will make America safer, if frontline workers are unmindful of fraud and if our immigration laws continue to be treated as suggestions rather than directives, we will continue to issue fraudulent licenses and illegal aliens will continue to move freely across our borders. And as we all know, the individuals with fake documents in their pockets that are standing in lines at our borders, at our airports, and at our local DMVs won’t always be U.S. agents.