The American government tonight faced embarrassment when a flight school where two of the September 11 hijackers trained received a letter saying they had been approved for visas.
Huffman International flying school was told former students Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the September 11 hijacks, and fellow terrorist Marwan al-Shehhi had been allocated official student visas.
The letters, from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS), arrived six months after the two men killed themselves and more than 3,000 others in the terrorist attacks which relied on their flying skills.
Stamps on the two letters, which were obtained by CNN, showed the INS had approved their applications for legal permission to remain in America on July 17, just under two months before they carried out their plan.
Tonight the INS claimed the bungling was due to an overloaded system which it is changing in the wake of the September 11 attacks - but offered no explanation as to why it took almost eight months for it to put the letters in the post.
Spokesman Russ Bergerun told CNN: ‘‘It is certainly embarrassing that the letters showed up at this date.
‘‘But it does serve to illustrate what we have been saying since 1995 - that the system for collecting information and tracking foreign students is antiquated, outdated, inaccurate and untimely.’’
Rudi Dekker, the owner of the flight school, said he was incredulous that the letters had arrived so long after the men’s deaths - and two and a half years since they had applied for the visas, in August 2000.
‘‘That is why we don’t understand why this has come in today and why this was not done a year ago,’’ he said.
Atta and al-Shehhi were able to train as pilots because people on tourist visas, which is how they entered the country, are allowed to study any course for up to 18 hours a week.
The INS is notorious for its inability to process visa applications on time.
America has millions of illegal immigrants who overstay tourist visas and work on student visas.