The very first line of defense for the U.S. homeland consists of those who issue visas (the consular division of the State Department) and those who control the borders (the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS). Trouble is, neither of those agencies has understood its security role.
Their disastrous mistakes became painfully evident with two revelations last week. Had the State Department properly applied its own rules, as Joel Mowbray showed in the Oct. 28 National Review and Thursday's Post, not one of the 15 Sept. 11 hijackers whose visa forms he inspected could have legally entered the United States. Those applicants failed almost all the tests required for admission (information about addresses, means of support) but nonetheless were allowed in.
As for the INS, Rep. George W. Gekas (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary's Immigration, Border Security and Claims Subcommittee, finally overcame INS stonewalling to learn the disheartening saga of how one immigrant terrorist, the Egyptian Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayet, stayed in the United States.
In a hearing last week, it came out that Hedayet entered the United States as a tourist in 1992, then applied for asylum claiming discrimination on account of his "religious beliefs." To support this claim, Hedayet told the INS that the Egyptian government had coerced him into signing two documents, acknowledging his membership in al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya ("the Islamic Group") and his intentions to overthrow the government of Egypt.
Hedayet denied the validity of these confessions, but - given the nature of al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, a group engaged in terrorism going back to the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981 - their very existence should have raised red flags. For example, the 1992 edition of Patterns of Global Terrorism, the U.S. government's most authoritative source on terrorism, reported that "Most of the attacks [in Egypt] in 1992 were perpetrated by the al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya extremist group . . . This group seeks the violent overthrow of the Egyptian Government."
The INS, however, treated Hedayet's case as routine. It did rule against his asylum application in March 1995 (unconvinced by his claims of religious persecution) and formally began the deportation procedures, but like countless other failed applicants, he was allowed to disappear into the vastness of American life. His possible membership in al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya went unremarked and no government agency tried to find him. More appalling yet, the INS authorized Hedayet to work in June 1996, on the same day it issued a deportation memorandum.
In July 1996, Hedayet's wife won a visa from the State Department's annual lottery. Again, the possible connection to terrorism went unheeded, permitting him to take advantage of this to become a lawful permanent resident.
Six years later, on July 4, 2002, the full extent of the INS' error became evident when Hedayet launched a shooting spree against the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport, killing two before being shot dead himself.
One might think this atrocity would cause the INS to admit its errors. One would be wrong. "The only indication that Mr. Hedayet could pose a threat to others in the United States," it defiantly announced last week, "was his own assertion that he was falsely accused of being a member of an organization that committed terrorist activities."
This cavalier attitude toward Hedayet's possible membership in al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya fits a pattern of unrepentant sloppiness by the INS that has acquired great national significance. To begin the urgent repair work, the INS must take three steps: Own up to its multiple errors with regard to Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayet; undertake a remedial campaign to go through its archives and arrest or deport all immigrants with ties to terrorism, and hold accountable those employees who behaved with what appears to be criminal negligence.
At a time when Americans are watching corrupt business executives being hauled off in handcuffs, should anything less await an INS staff responsible for allowing into the country the murderers of their fellow citizens?