US president George Bush said he was ‘‘plenty hot’’ to learn that student visas for two September 11 hijackers were delivered months after they flew planes into New York’s World Trade Centre.
He ordered his attorney general to investigate and urged reform of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service.
Bush described the matter as ‘‘a wake-up call for those who run the INS’’ and said the agency had antiquated information systems and needed an upgrade. ‘‘They got the message and hopefully, they’ll reform as quickly as possible,’’ Bush said.
The president said he was ‘‘stunned, and not happy’’ when he learned that no one had intercepted the visas for Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi before they arrived at a Florida flight school on Monday.
‘‘Let me put it another way: I was plenty hot,’’ Bush said at a news conference at the White House.
efore Bush spoke, Attorney General John Ashcroft directed Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine to find out why immigration officials had failed to pull the notification letters and why there was such a long delay in processing them.
The president ordered Ashcroft, whose department includes the INS, and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge to investigate and report back to him.
Bush said he was unhappy that the visas remained in the immigration pipeline even though the names on the forms were widely known. He said INS Commissioner James Ziglar was responsible for ‘‘this embarrassing disclosure’’, but should be given a chance to rectify the problem.
‘‘His responsibility is to reform the INS; let’s give him time to do so. He hasn’t been there that long,’’ Bush said.
Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he would propose changes in the way the INS issued and monitored student visas.
Specifically, Graham called for cross-checking records between police departments, intelligence agencies and Interpol, the global law enforcement arm, ‘‘to provide a more complete profile of prospective immigrants’’.
On Monday, exactly six months after the attacks, Huffman Aviation in Venice, Florida, received student visa approval forms for Atta, 33, and Al-Shehhi, 23. The men were aboard separate hijacked planes that struck the World Trade Centre twin towers, killing thousands.
The pair trained at Huffman 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 said the INS had no information ‘‘regarding these people and their link to terrorism’’ when the visas were granted.