Government enforces a stop-them-at-the-border policy as officials describe weaknesses in system

Thursday, November 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The government is increasing vigilance at the nation's borders with better background checks and coordinated enforcement designed to bar suspected terrorists and their supporters.

The changes announced Wednesday by Attorney General John Ashcroft came as officials acknowledged weaknesses in a visa system that cleared the Sept. 11 hijackers into the country. At least four overstayed their permits.

``The best way of protecting the United States is to keep these people out,'' said Mary Ryan, assistant secretary of state for consular affairs.

Promising that the government won't allow visitors ``to use our hospitality as a weapon,'' Ashcroft asked the State Department to designate 46 previously identified terrorist organizations whose members or supporters will not be permitted to enter the United States.

The Justice Department says 1,087 people have been arrested or detained in the investigations of the Sept. 11 attacks, including 182 charged with immigration violations.

Ashcroft said among those arrested this month were three Arab men ``suspected of having knowledge'' of the Sept. 11 attacks.

A day planner containing notations in Arabic and what appeared to be a diagram of an airport flight line were found in the apartment of the men, Ashcroft said, along with false immigration forms, a fraudulent U.S. visa and a false alien identification card.

Ryan said U.S. intelligence agencies don't share their terrorist and criminal watch lists with the State Department, which made it possible for foreigners to get legal visas even if some U.S. agencies would want them barred.

Ashcroft said he was creating a task force to foster better coordination among government agencies.

Shoring up the nation's border defenses came on a day the FBI announced that its second in command, Thomas Pickard, overseer of the investigations into the Sept. 11 attacks and introduction of anthrax into the mail system, will retire at the end of November. Pickard's retirement is the second major departure since FBI Director Robert Mueller took charge of the bureau in July. Neil Gallagher, head of the FBI's counterintelligence and national security programs, also plans to retire at the end of next month.

At a news conference, Ashcroft said the government will delve more deeply into the backgrounds of people seeking visitor visas and will turn the information over to the CIA and FBI for further investigation before issuing permission to enter.

``This is clear authority that strengthens our ability to say to terrorists, `You're not welcome in the United States,''' Ashcroft said.

Under new rules, immigration authorities can bar members of political or social groups that endorse terrorist activities. People who use their prominence to endorse terrorism can also be barred, and anyone certified by the attorney general as a threat to national security can be denied entry.

Immigration Commissioner James Ziglar said the task force, headed by FBI official Steven McCraw, will provide immigration officials with ``real-time access to information'' that will enable them to keep out suspected terrorists.

Federal officials acknowledged a lax system for tracking people once they pass through border check points.

State Department and immigration officials told Congress they don't know how many foreigners are in the United States illegally with expired student visas or student visas never used for schools where the holders were to have studied.

Hani Hanjour, suspected pilot of American Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon, entered the United States on a student visa after promising to enroll at Holy Name College in Oakland, Calif. He failed to appear there.

The State Department said 15 of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks applied for and were granted visas in Saudi Arabia. Before getting the travel papers, their names were checked against lists of suspected terrorists, and six were interviewed.

The immigration service is moving forward with a computer tracking system that would require schools to report any change in a foreign student's status, such as enrollment, change of major or a move to a new address.

Immigration official Michael Becraft told Congress his agency has only about 2,000 investigators, half of whom are working on the attacks probe. That leaves few investigators to handle the agency's regular load, much less chase after foreign students who stay too long or fail to attend class.

Four senators are working on bills that would place limitations on the student visa system.