WASHINGTON (AP) _ Prodded by President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered an investigation Wednesday of ``disturbing failures'' that led to the delivery of student visas for two of the Sept. 11 hijackers six months after they crashed into the World Trade Center.
``It is inexcusable,'' Ashcroft said. He directed Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine to find out why immigration officials failed to intercept the notification letters and why there was such a long delay in processing them.
The president ordered Ashcroft, whose department includes the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and homeland security director Tom Ridge to ``get to the bottom of this immediately,'' said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
``He wants it fixed. This is unacceptable,'' McClellan said.
Bush is unhappy that the visas remained in the immigration pipeline even though the names on the forms were widely known, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Still, Bush maintains confidence in INS Commissioner James Ziglar, Fleischer said.
On Monday, exactly six months after the attacks, a Florida flight school received student visa approval forms for Mohamed Atta, 33, and Marwan Al-Shehhi, 23. The men were aboard separate hijacked planes that struck the World Trade Center towers, killing thousands.
The pair trained at Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla., in 2000 and early 2001 and sought student visas so they could attend technical schools. The visa for Atta, of Egypt, was approved in July 2001 and a visa for Al-Shehhi, of United Arab Emirates, was approved the following month, said Russ Bergeron, an immigration agency spokesman.
Bergeron described the paperwork the flight school received as a backstop on notification the INS gave the men and the school last summer. He said the INS had no information ``regarding these people and their link to terrorism'' when the visas were granted, and attributed the delayed paperwork delivery to a backlog at a federal processing center in London, Ky.
Official consternation spread from the White House to Capitol Hill. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., whose district borders the flight school, said the INS can't blame a lack of funds or equipment.
``How this wasn't discovered by even a rank-and-file worker is beyond my comprehension,'' Foley said. ``Anything with Mohamed Atta's name on it should send alarm bells blasting.''
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., called the hijacker visas ``one of the most embarrassing incidents since 9/11'' and called for Ridge to testify before Congress on issues involving his office. He noted that a Democratic homeland security proposal had included $25 million to improve computer monitoring of foreign students in the United States.
``It's a recognition that we still have a lot of work to do,'' Daschle said.
Ridge spokesman Gordon Johndroe said testimony is not necessary since Ridge makes himself available to congressional leaders and members on a regular basis, as do all Cabinet-level officials with operational and budgetary responsibilities.
According to the visa forms, provided to The Associated Press by flight school owner Rudi Dekkers, both Atta and Al-Shehhi were cleared to remain in the United States until Oct. 1, 2001.
``When they hit the buildings they were approved to be here,'' Dekkers said.
The processing center in Kentucky is owned and operated by Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc., which has a five-year, $75 million contract with the INS to process paperwork involving foreigners visiting the United States.
Lesley Pool, the company's chief marketing officer, said questions on why the documents were forwarded were best asked of the INS. ``Our clients own this data, operate on this data,'' Pool said. ``Our role is purely handling the paper.''
U.S. authorities believe Atta was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which struck the trade center's north tower, and Al-Shehhi was aboard United Airlines Flight 175, which hit the south tower 17 minutes later.
Dekkers said Atta and Al-Shehhi completed the paperwork on Aug. 29, 2000, just before they began their six-month flight instruction program at the school.