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Homeland Security


The Immigration and Naturalization Service's Contacts With Two September 11 Terrorists:

A Review of the INS's Admissions of Mohamed Atta and Marwan Alshehhi, its Processing of their Change of Status Applications, and its Efforts to Track Foreign Students in the United States

U.S. Department of Justice
Office of the Inspector General

May 20, 2002


CHAPTER FIVE


THE INS'S FAILURE TO STOP DELIVERY OF THE I-20S TO HUFFMAN AVIATION
  1. Introduction

    In this chapter of the report, we discuss the second question specifically presented to us by the Attorney General:

    • Why did the INS fail to stop the delivery of the school's copy of the I-20 form after Atta and Alshehhi were identified as terrorists who participated in the attacks of September 11, 2001?

    To investigate this issue, we interviewed managers and other employees in the two INS components with the most relevant jurisdictions over Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s: the Immigration Services Division and the Enforcement Division. The Immigration Services Division had responsibility for the TSC; the Enforcement Division had responsibility for the investigative activity associated with the September 11 attacks and worked closely with the FBI. Both the Immigrations Services Division and the Enforcement Division fall within the Office of Field Operations. Below we describe the actions of INS employees in the aftermath of September 11 and their reasons for not retrieving the I-20s. Thereafter we analyze their actions and explanations.

  2. Actions of ACS and INS Employees

    1. Actions of ACS

      Before addressing the INS's failure to stop the delivery of the I-20s to Huffman Aviation, we discuss ACS's role in this matter. We concluded that ACS should not be criticized for mailing out the forms. First, as a government contractor, ACS takes its direction from the INS. In addition, as discussed in the rest of the chapter, no one from the INS contacted ACS about Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s. Absent instructions from the INS, ACS had no independent responsibility to check its records to verify whether it possessed documents related to terrorists from September 11.

      Moreover, the processing of I-20s is a clerical function that is mostly automated. Although a clerical employee would have seen the names of Atta and Alshehhi when he or she data entered the information from the I-20s in October 2001, clerical employees at ACS had no responsibility for determining whether the information they were typing was related to terrorists from September 11. In addition, as described earlier in this report, the mailing of the I-20s is a completely automated process. ACS personnel perform a quick quality control check that consists of making sure that the address of the school appears in the envelope window but do not see the name of the student when doing so.

      For these reasons, we do not believe that ACS bears any responsibility for not stopping the I-20s from being mailed to Huffman Aviation.

    2. Actions of the TSC personnel and INS Headquarters managers overseeing the service centers

      Immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, INS personnel checked their records regarding the individuals believed to be responsible for the attacks. By the evening of September 11, 2001, TSC personnel working on their own initiative determined through database searches that the TSC had granted M-1 student status to Atta and Alshehhi and that the receipt files were being stored in the Mesquite facility. The next morning, two TSC employees went to the Mesquite facility and retrieved the Atta and Alshehhi receipt files. Later that same day, TSC management and INS Headquarters personnel responsible for TSC operations (the Immigration Services Division) were aware that TSC personnel were in possession of two of the September 11 terrorists' files.

      As this section describes, we determined that no INS manager or employee inquired about the location of Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s or requested additional information about the files, such as the status of the I-20s. The Headquarters and TSC managers we interviewed indicated that they did not consider the issue of physically retrieving the I-20s. Most surprisingly, they told the OIG that even if they had thought about the I-20s, they were not aware that the I-20s were still being processed because the contractor stored the I-20s for 180 days before returning them to the appropriate school.

      1. Retrieval of the Atta and Alshehhi files at the TSC

        The TSC's Enforcement Operations Division consists of eight Investigative Research Specialists (IRS), seven of whom handle investigations into possible benefits fraud. 101 One of the IRSs is a computer specialist who manipulates and searches INS's computer systems for data that would be useful in benefits fraud investigations. The IRSs report to the TSC Assistant Center Director for the Enforcement Operations Division, Gary Bradford. On September 11, Bradford had been for several weeks the Acting Deputy Center Director. He was on vacation the week of September 11. Bradford did not return to the office until the following Monday. One of the Investigative Research Specialists was the Acting Assistant Center Director in Bradford's absence and had been for several weeks prior to September 11.

        Two of the TSC's other IRSs stayed at work on September 11 on their own initiative and began running computer checks based on information they obtained about the terrorists from news services and the Internet. According to one of these IRSs, by the evening of September 11, he and his co-worker had determined that Atta and Alshehhi had submitted I-539 applications to the TSC and identified that the TSC had the receipt files of both. On the morning of September 12, the IRSs went to the TSC file room, located in the auxiliary facility in Mesquite, Texas, and retrieved both receipt files. The IRSs said they notified the Acting Assistant Center Director for the Enforcement Operations Division, who in turn notified Bradford and the Acting Service Center Director, Carmelo Ortiz.

        The Acting Assistant Center Director told the OIG that he also e-mailed the TSC's point of contact at INS Headquarters in the Enforcement Division of the Office of Field Operations, who is a Senior Special Agent, to inform him that the TSC had the files and that he would await direction from INS Headquarters as to what to do with the files. According to the Acting Assistant Center Director, he also faxed the I-539s to the Senior Special Agent's attention at INS Headquarters. The Acting Assistant Center Director told the OIG he was never contacted by the Senior Special Agent or anyone else at INS Headquarters about the files. According to the Senior Special Agent, he responded to the Acting Assistant Center Director by e-mail and instructed him to fax copies of the files to INS Headquarters, and that based on this instruction, the Acting Assistant Center Director faxed copies of the files to INS Headquarters on September 12, 2001. 102 Shortly thereafter, the Senior Special Agent faxed the documents to FBI Headquarters.

        On September 24, 2001, the FBI's Dallas Division asked the TSC for the original files on Atta and Alshehhi. A Dallas Division Special Agent told the OIG that on that same day he was assigned a lead that had originated from the FBI's Norfolk Division instructing the Dallas Division to go to the TSC and "obtain all information" relating to Alshehhi and Atta. 103 The FBI agent told the OIG that he went to the TSC and contacted the IRS who had been the Acting Assistant Center Director, who signed over to the FBI both Alshehhi's and Atta's original receipt files. 104 On September 25, 2001, the FBI agent forwarded by facsimile to Norfolk and other FBI offices copies of the documents obtained at the TSC. In the cover memorandum, the FBI agent summarized his original task as being to "retrieve the original INS files at the Texas Service Center, Mesquite, Texas, regarding [Atta and Alshehhi]."

        The Acting Assistant Center Director and the other IRSs interviewed by the OIG stated that they did not discuss the I-20s or whether there was any additional information related to the files. They said that they were concerned with preserving the files in the event that they contained forensic evidence that could be used in the terrorist investigation that was being led by the FBI. The receipt files contained the I-539 applications and supporting documentation. They did not contain the I-20s because by this time, the student copies of the I-20s had been returned to Atta and Alshehhi and the school copies of the I-20s were on their way to ACS for processing.

      2. Actions taken by TSC and INS Headquarters managers

        On the morning of September 11, the INS Associate Commissioner for Service Center Operations, Fujie Ohata, traveled on a plane with the new TSC Director, Evelyn Upchurch, who was scheduled to report to the TSC on September 11. Ohata told the OIG that she believes that she was informed by Ortiz about the fact that the TSC had identified the Atta and Alshehhi files and that the TSC was retaining the files until they were requested by the FBI. The INS Deputy Executive Associate Commissioner for Immigration Services Division, William Yates, told the OIG that he knew very soon after September 11 that the TSC had the Atta and Alshehhi files, although he could not recall how he became aware of this. According to Bradford, Ortiz, Ohata, and Yates, they all sought to ensure that the files were properly maintained and that the appropriate personnel knew to provide the files to the FBI. They all told the OIG that they did not inquire further, however, about the status of the I-20s or whether all records related to the files had been located and provided to the FBI.

        The OIG also sought to determine whether anyone in the service center management, whether in Texas or in Washington, D.C., sought to review the files or have the files reviewed to determine if the cases had been adjudicated properly. The OIG asked the Acting TSC Director at the time, Ortiz, whether he discussed the disposition of the files at any meetings with other TSC managers, and he said that he had not. He said that he considered the files to be part of an investigation and that information about the files should be kept "confidential." Other TSC personnel told the OIG that they heard "rumors" and "gossip" that the TSC had the Atta and Alshehhi files, but they were not officially informed of this fact. We also asked the Assistant Center Directors for Adjudications, including the ACD who had responsibility for I-539 applications and who was an experienced I-539 adjudicator, whether they were ever asked to review the files to determine if the adjudications had been handled properly, and they all said that they either had not been asked or did not know about the files. INS Headquarters managers also told the OIG that they did not discuss the files further once they were assured that the files were being maintained properly.

      3. Reasons TSC and Immigration Services Division personnel did not stop the I-20s before they were mailed to Huffman Aviation

        None of the TSC employees involved with handling the Atta and Alshehhi files, none of the TSC managers, and none of the managers at INS Headquarters responsible for oversight of the service centers inquired about the location of the school copy of the I-20s associated with Atta's or Alshehhi's file. All the employees we interviewed indicated that they did not think about the I-20s. They provided a number of different reasons for not doing so, which we discuss below. Most troubling to us was the fact that none of the managers we interviewed was aware of the contractor's duties or requirements with respect to processing the I-20s. While all the managers told the OIG that they were aware that the I-20s were sent to a contractor in another state, they stated they did not know anything about the contractor's process for the I-20s, including that the contractor stored the I-20s for six months before returning them to the school.

        1. TSC personnel

          The TSC Enforcement Operations Division personnel whom we interviewed told the OIG that once they retrieved the files from the Mesquite facility, their primary focus was on making sure that the files were handled in such a way that any forensic evidence would be preserved. They said that they did what they understood was their duty, to notify INS Headquarters about the files and to wait for further instructions. The Acting Assistant Center Director at the time said that he was disappointed not to receive further instructions from the Enforcement Division at INS Headquarters, but that he made no further contact with INS Headquarters about the files.

          The Assistant Center Director for Enforcement Operations, Gary Bradford, told the OIG that he saw no need to discuss the files further or conduct any further investigation based on the Enforcement Operations Division's assessment that the paperwork appeared to have been properly filed and adjudicated. He also said that within a day or so of September 11, the Enforcement Operations Divisions at all the service centers staffed their offices 24 hours per day and 7 seven days per week to respond to requests for information and other needs of the INS and the FBI. He said that because of all the activity centered around the investigation following the events of September 11, Atta's and Alshehhi's files receded in importance and were no longer a concern once the FBI had retrieved them.

          All the Enforcement Operations Division employees we interviewed stated that even if they had considered the I-20s, they would have believed that the I-20s were already at Huffman Aviation and had been accounted for by the FBI. They indicated that since they all knew that the cases had been adjudicated months earlier and since none of them were aware of the contractor's processing requirements, they would have believed that the I-20s had long since been processed by the contractor.

          Ortiz, the Acting TSC Service Center Director in mid-September 2001, told the OIG that he was made aware of Atta's and Alshehhi's files and that once he was confident that they were being handled appropriately, there was nothing else to do with respect to the files. He said that since he considered the files to be part of the FBI's investigation and the terrorists were dead, he did not see any reason to discuss the files with the TSC's Assistant Center Directors to determine whether the cases had been properly adjudicated. In addition, he said that his focus was on the safety of the two TSC buildings because of fears of further attacks and several bomb threats that resulted in evacuations in the days following September 11. He told the OIG that he was not aware of the contracting requirements with respect to the I-20s; he only knew that they were processed by a private company in Kentucky.

        2. Immigration Services Division managers

          Fujie Ohata, the Associate Commissioner for Service Center Operations, landed on a plane in Dallas, Texas, the morning of September 11 because she was escorting the new TSC Director to her post. Ohata told the OIG that she learned about the files of Atta and Alshehhi the next day from Ortiz. Ohata said that she recalled telling Ortiz to make sure that the appropriate law enforcement agencies had what they needed. Ohata said that she felt comfortable that the files were being dealt with appropriately, which was her concern. She said that in the aftermath of the events of September 11, she was dealing with a number of issues with respect to service center employees throughout the country who, like her, were stranded away from their duty stations. She also said that she was ensuring that all of the service centers were up and running.

          Ohata said that she returned to Washington on Thursday, September 13, and that she recalls having a limited conversation with Yates about the fact that at least one of the suspected terrorists had been granted benefits by the INS through the TSC. She said that she informed Yates, her supervisor, that the TSC had located the file and was in the process of transferring it to the FBI. Ohata told the OIG that she did not recall any meetings at INS Headquarters about the files or any discussion about determining whether the files had been properly adjudicated. She said that she was not asked to do anything else with respect to the files, nor did she ask anyone to do anything else with respect to the files.

          Ohata told the OIG that she was not aware of anything in the contract between INS and the contractor regarding the I-20s and a storage requirement of 180 days. She said that she learned only recently about this arrangement from INS briefings to the media.

          Yates, the Deputy Executive Associate Commissioner for and the person in charge of the Immigration Services Division, told the OIG that he was not sure how he was made aware of the terrorists' files in the TSC but that he recalled getting telephone calls from the field about this matter. He suggested that since he was aware that the files were being maintained appropriately for law enforcement purposes, there was nothing else to do with respect to these files, and he did not give any further instructions about them.

          He said that in the aftermath of September 11, he took his direction from then-Executive Assistant Commissioner for Field Operations Michael Pearson, who immediately established a "Command Center" at INS Headquarters for coordinating information. According to Yates, his first instructions from Pearson were to set up the service centers' Enforcement Operations Divisions to operate around the clock, seven days per week. Yates said that his office was also asked, based upon a request from the White House, to compile a list of the dates, times and locations of naturalization ceremonies all over the United States, which he said he believed arose because Bush Administration officials were planning to attend naturalization ceremonies as a means to demonstrate support for immigrants after the September 11 attacks. According to Yates, this directive generated an enormous amount of work.

          Yates told the OIG that he was aware that significant numbers of requests were made throughout the INS for original A-files and receipt files and that these files were provided to the particular law enforcement official or entity that requested the file. However, Yates said that he never received any instruction to collect all INS files or records with respect to the terrorists once they had been identified, nor did he ever issue such an order on his own initiative. According to Yates, with respect to the pulling together all of the files, he and other Immigration Services Division personnel took their instructions from law enforcement personnel, since the files were related to an FBI investigation.

          With respect to the processing of I-20s, Yates said that he was not aware of the contractor's process for handling I-20s and stated specifically that he was not aware that the contractor stored the I-20s for 180 days after processing them. He also stated that to his knowledge no one within the Immigration Services Division was aware that the contractor stored the I-20s for 180 days. Yates told the OIG that prior to the events of September 11, responsibility for the I-539 "product line" had never been assigned to a particular manager in the Immigration Services Division. 105 Yates suggested that no one in the Immigration Services Division had any information about the processing of the I-20s because the contract was not managed out of the Immigration Services Division. He told the OIG that it was his understanding that the contract governing the processing of the I-20s and other INS forms was managed by the Inspections Division within the Office of Field Operations. 106

      4. OIG analysis

        No one in the TSC or the Immigration Services Division was specifically asked to provide every document or record relating to Atta and Alshehhi or was asked specifically to locate the I-20s associated with their files. Although the lead provided to the FBI Dallas Special Agent stated "all information" should be gathered, the FBI agent's understanding was that he was going to the TSC to "retrieve the original INS files [of Atta and Alshehhi]." He told the OIG that he did not believe that he asked for every document associated with Atta and Alshehhi and that there was no discussion about whether he was being given the entire file. He said that the Acting Assistant Center Director told him that he had the files and that the Enforcement Operations Division had checked the names through all of the INS's computer systems.

        No one involved with the Atta and Alshehhi files in the TSC Enforcement Operations Division attempted to retrieve the I-20s or otherwise conducted any research about their location. We also found that neither the managers at the TSC nor in the Immigration Services Division issued any instructions about the Atta and Alshehhi files or specifically instructed anyone to locate the I-20s. Due to the commendable initiative of two TSC IRSs, the files of Atta and Alshehhi were identified and retrieved from the Mesquite facility within 24 hours of the attacks of September 11. In the days following September 11, the focus of both TSC personnel and managers and Immigration Services Division managers once they were aware of the files was that the appropriate steps be taken to provide the files to the FBI. Once TSC and Immigration Services Division managers were confident that the files had been handled appropriately, the managers considered the issue resolved and moved on to other matters.

        We recognize that the events of September 11 created overwhelming demands on all law enforcement agencies, including the INS. Within several hours of the destruction, however, the TSC had identified an important link between the TSC and the terrorists involved in the attack. In our view, it was the responsibility of the TSC managers and their supervisors in the Immigration Services Division to manage their piece of this significant event in a thorough manner. Although the FBI may not have asked specifically for the I-20s or even "all files relating to Atta and Alshehhi," we believe that INS managers should have taken the initiative to ensure that the FBI was either provided with all immigration records relating to the terrorists, including the I-20s, or at least notified of the existence of the documents. The evidence shows that they did not.

        We believe that TSC Enforcement Operations Division personnel bear some responsibility for failing to consider whether to retrieve the Atta and Alshehhi I-20s before they were mailed to Huffman Aviation. The Enforcement Operations personnel who located the files certainly deserve credit for their initiative in locating the Atta and Alshehhi files. Nonetheless, since they and their managers serve in an investigative function and were aware that the I-20 form was one of the documents used in the change of status adjudication process, they should have at least inquired as to the status of Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s, even if they believed that they were already sent to the school. All TSC Enforcement Operations Division personnel we interviewed told the OIG that they wanted to preserve the original files for forensic evidence. But despite the fact that the I-20 is supposed to contain original signatures, none of the Enforcement Operations Division personnel inquired about or took any action to retrieve the I-20s. Moreover, if the Acting Assistant Center Director at the time and Bradford thought that the I-20s were already at Huffman Aviation and therefore beyond their reach, they should have brought this to the attention of the FBI agent who retrieved the Atta and Alshehhi files.

        We believe that the Immigration Services Division managers - Yates and Ohata - as well as the TSC manager at the time, Ortiz - bear even more responsibility than the TSC Enforcement Operations Division personnel for failing to take action with respect to the I-20s. Yates, Ohata, and Ortiz told the OIG that their main concern was ensuring that the FBI had the information that it needed. At the same time, all three acknowledged that they were aware that the I-20 was part of the change of status adjudication process for students. To ensure that the FBI or other law enforcement agency were aware of all documents and information associated with the terrorists, they should have at least inquired about the status of the I-20s or directed that INS personnel take steps to make sure that all parts of the file and records had been collected, including the I-20s. While we recognize that the days following September 11 were extraordinary, had this type of analysis occurred any time between September 11 and March 2002, the I-20s could have been identified, located, and offered to the FBI.

        As the person in charge of the Immigration Services Division, Yates had the greatest responsibility to consider the broader implications of INS's dealings with Atta and Alshehhi. Although Yates told the OIG that he was taking direction from Executive Associate Commissioner for Field Operations Pearson in the aftermath of September 11, we believe that it was Yates' responsibility to recognize that the INS needed to identify all of its documents and records regarding the terrorists and to ensure that appropriate steps were taken to make the FBI aware of these documents. If Yates believed that it was not his place to take the initiative to address the issue, he should have at least raised it with Pearson. 107

        More troubling than the disposition of these two particular I-20s, however, is the fact that no one in the Immigration Services Division or the TSC to whom we spoke was aware of the processing requirements of the school copy of the I-20 form. This information is important for several reasons. Service centers sometimes need to retrieve an I-20 from ACS. The INS's contract allows the INS to request a certain number of records from ACS annually. Service center employees, particularly Enforcement Operations Division employees who would likely be making the requests as part of an investigation, should have been aware of this information and the procedure for making the requests. They should also have been aware of any storage requirements for the I-20 in order to determine the likelihood that the I-20 would even be in the ACS facility. In addition, schools and applicants often call the INS to inquire about the status of their applications and forms. As part of their responsibility to be knowledgeable and informed when responding to inquiries from the public, service center employees should know what happens to the I-20 once it leaves the INS. The fact that no one did reflects a troubling lack of management and attention to detail.

    3. Actions of INS Headquarters Enforcement Division personnel

      In addition to the failings of TSC and ISD personnel, we evaluated the actions of INS Headquarters Enforcement Division personnel with regard to the I-20s that were mailed to Huffman Aviation. Our analysis of their actions is described in this section.

      1. Organization of Enforcement Division

        The Enforcement Division falls under the Office of Field Operations. In September 2001, the Executive Associate Commissioner for Field Operations, Michael Pearson, was responsible for the three regional directors, the Border Patrol, the Office of International Affairs, and three large divisions - Enforcement, Immigration Services, and Detention and Removal, each of which is headed by a Deputy Executive Associate Commissioner. The Enforcement Division was headed by the Deputy Executive Associate Commissioner for Enforcement, who at that time supervised three assistant commissioners, one for investigations, inspections, and intelligence. The Acting Assistant Commissioner for Investigations supervised four branch chiefs, each of whom was responsible for a different substantive area within the investigative arena.

        Of the four branches, the National Security Unit (NSU) was most directly involved in the investigation that arose out of the events of September 11. The NSU is headed by Walter "Dan" Cadman. Around September 2001, it was comprised of several Senior Special Agents, three of who were working in the FBI's Counterterrorism Division. One of the Senior Special Agents has responsibility for the INS agents who participate in the Joint Terrorism Task Force with other law enforcement agencies.

      2. Events at INS Headquarters on and around September 11

        Enforcement Division personnel described to us the chaotic conditions at INS Headquarters and the many assignments they were working in the immediate aftermath of the September attacks. On the morning of September 11, Pearson activated the Operations Center at Headquarters, an emergency crisis center that had not previously been used. Pearson said that he also directed all INS enforcement branches to operate at Threat Level One. Ports of entry were reinforced with additional manpower. Pearson directed that a 24-hour command center be established at each regional office.

        The FBI activated its Special Incidents Operations Command (SIOC) in response to the attacks of September 11, and three INS agents working in FBI Headquarters formed the core of an INS desk that served as a full-time INS point of contact for the FBI agents and support personnel who were working in the SIOC at any given time. The flow of information between the INS field agents and the FBI passed through the INS's NSU.

        The INS Operations Center's initial focus was to check the list of passengers on the four hijacked planes through INS computer systems. The NSU also supported the FBI's investigation, and a team of INS agents assisted in conducting reviews of the several hundred aliens arrested during the investigation. With respect to the lists of suspected terrorists or "watch lists," the NSU provided information to the INS's Inspections Division to make sure that suspected terrorists did not leave the country. The INS updated information about the suspected terrorists as the information became known.

        In the INS's Intelligence Division, personnel began immediately to assemble data about the suspected terrorists once the passenger lists had been obtained. They began working on a detailed timeline that would reflect and analyze the movements of the terrorists as well as identify associations among them. In addition, suspected terrorist lists containing as many as 6,000 names were disseminated, and efforts were made to identify information the INS had with respect to persons on the list and to determine if the information was accurate.

      3. Enforcement Division requests for information and the handling of Atta's and Alshehhi's files

        The Enforcement Division personnel interviewed by the OIG told us that there was no request or instruction from the Enforcement Division to assemble all files, records, or documents related to the 19 terrorists or to any terrorist in particular. 108 In addition, Enforcement Division personnel, in particular the three INS agents who worked with the FBI and served as the FBI's point of contact with the INS, stated that they were not aware of any request from the FBI for the INS to assemble all INS files, records, or documents with respect to the terrorists.

        As discussed previously, TSC personnel located and retrieved the Atta and Alshehhi files on September 12, and the Acting Assistant Center Director from the TSC's Enforcement Operations Division, e-mailed a Senior Special Agent at INS Headquarters about the files. According to the Acting Assistant Center Director, he e-mailed this Senior Special Agent because he was the service centers' point of contact within the Enforcement Division. This Senior Special Agent worked in the Fraud Section, and his usual duties included, among other things, approving agents working undercover in fraud cases. The Senior Special Agent said that he did not have managerial responsibility for the Enforcement Operations Divisions in the service centers and did not typically have contact with them. The Senior Special Agent said that, although he normally worked in the Fraud Section, on September 11 he was doing what was needed in the NSU.

        The Senior Special Agent told the OIG that he recalled receiving an e-mail from the TSC about files that the TSC had located concerning the terrorists. He said that he recalled e-mailing the Acting Assistant Center Director back and directing him to fax the documentation to him at INS Headquarters. The Senior Special Agent said that once he received the fax from the TSC, he faxed the documents to the FBI, where the documents would have been routed to one of the INS agents working in the FBI's SIOC at the time. The Senior Special Agent said that he did not call or follow up with the TSC about Atta's or Alshehhi's documents. The Senior Special Agent said that he was not asked to conduct any further follow up about the documents that he faxed to the FBI.

      4. Reasons stated by Enforcement personnel for not asking for all INS records or files related to the terrorists

        The Enforcement Division personnel we interviewed consistently stated that in the initial wake of the events of September 11, their emphasis was on obtaining information, not documents, files, or paper, about the identities of the terrorists and on identifying any imminent additional attacks. Enforcement personnel stated that after identifying the terrorists and ensuring that no additional threats were forthcoming, the emphasis turned to managing the information related to the suspected terrorists lists and the arrests of several hundred aliens for immigration violations. Cadman, the director of the NSU, as well as other Enforcement Division personnel also stated that the investigation with respect to the attacks of September 11 was within the jurisdiction of the FBI, and that the NSU's role was to coordinate the FBI's requests for information from the INS and the responses from the field. Enforcement personnel also told the OIG that the NSU assessed information that was generated in the field and sent to the Enforcement Division mainly in the form of Special Incident Reports to determine what might be of value to the FBI.

        We asked each person from the Enforcement Division we interviewed why, once it became known that the INS had granted student status to Atta and Alshehhi, efforts were not made to obtain the I-20s related to the change of status applications. They told us that they did not consider the I-20s or discuss whether they should be obtained. Looking back on their actions, they said they were not attempting to build a case against the terrorists, since they were dead, and that all necessary information concerning addresses, schools attended, and entries into the country was being obtained from INS databases. They stated that if there had been some question as to the identity of the terrorists or some other investigative need that was not being met by the information available, they would have made additional efforts to track down all available information. They acknowledged, however, that they made no reasoned decision not to obtain the I-20s; rather, they had not considered the issue at the time. Across the board, the Enforcement personnel stated that even if there had been a need for the information in the files or in the I-20, they were not aware of the processing requirements for I-20s. While most of the persons interviewed said that they were aware that I-20s were associated with change of status applications for persons requesting to become students, they stated that they were not aware of any of the processing steps taken to return the I-20s to the schools.

        With respect to the Atta and Alshehhi files received by the Senior Special Agent in INS Headquarters, he stated that he was not aware at the time that I-20s were processed by a contractor and that it was his understanding that the I-20 was sent to the school once the case was adjudicated. He said that at the time, the information contained in the I-20s, such as name, address, and passport number, was more important than the actual files. He added that he believed his role was to act as a conduit of information to the FBI.

        We interviewed each of the three INS agents who were working at FBI Headquarters at the time and asked what they thought their role was with respect to incoming information from the INS. One of the INS agents said that he was primarily involved with operational matters such as preparing for briefings rather than dealing with incoming information. The other two agents told the OIG that as they received information from the INS, they would fill out the proper FBI cover sheet for the information and forward it to the appropriate desk in the SIOC for data entry into the FBI's database. They suggested that it was not part of their responsibility to assess the value or purpose of the incoming information.

      5. OIG analysis

        No one in the INS's Enforcement Division issued any instruction to obtain all documents, records, or files related to the terrorists involved with the attacks on September 11. Nor did anyone within the Enforcement Division issue any instruction with respect to the particular files of Atta and Alshehhi or the associated I-20s, once it became known that the INS had adjudicated their change of status applications. Enforcement efforts at INS Headquarters focused on the interruption of any additional terrorist activity and the arrest of any potential terrorist conspirator. There was no emphasis on the collection of documents.

        Several other reasons contributed to the Enforcement Division not retrieving the I-20s related to the Atta and Alshehhi files. Many of the personnel we interviewed described INS Headquarters as "chaotic" in the immediate aftermath of September 11. In addition, in the days that followed the attacks of September 11, the INS was inundated with specific requests for information. Approximately thirty INS detailees were used to staff both the NSU and the INS desks at the FBI SIOC. Across the country, up to half of all INS agents were assigned duties with the FBI. At both the INS service centers and the off-site contractor locations, personnel were working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to retrieve, assemble, and forward requested data and files.

        Although the INS was attempting to obtain a cumulative base of information regarding the terrorists, their efforts were hindered by the fact that there existed no infrastructure to manage investigative leads and findings. Likewise, there was no systematic means of coordinating either the retrieval or the distribution of known information. This led to inefficiency and work duplication, with individual employees repeatedly querying and forwarding the same information again to different recipients at different times. Also, because many of the INS's databases did not communicate with one another, a multitude of computer queries was required to gather all of the known information on any particular alien.

        However, as with our analysis of the actions of personnel from the Immigration Services Division and the Texas Service Center, we believe that this does not excuse the Enforcement Division personnel's failure to consider whether all documents regarding Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications, including the I-20s, had been provided to the FBI. We believe that the managers of the Enforcement Division, in particular Pearson as the Executive Associate Commissioner of Field Operations, and to a lesser extent, Cadman as the head of the NSU, bear some responsibility for failing to ensure that the I-20s associated with the files of Atta and Alshehhi were, at a minimum, identified for the FBI. Although we recognize that the FBI had primary jurisdiction over the investigation of the terrorists acts committed on September 11, the fact that all 19 terrorists were aliens who had contacts with the INS created a greater responsibility for the INS to ensure that it was making the FBI aware of all of its records associated with the terrorists. While we acknowledge that the aftermath of September 11 was extraordinary and that the immediate need of the investigative effort was for information not documents, at some point after the immediate crisis of September 11th had subsided it was incumbent upon the managers in the Enforcement Division to assess whether all available files and other records had been provided to the FBI. We believe that the direction to conduct such an analysis should have come from Pearson. We also believe Cadman, as the manager of the unit responsible for providing information to the FBI, should also have recognized the need for such action and at least raised the matter to his supervisors.

        Unfortunately, no one in the INS - either in INS Headquarters in the Enforcement Division or the Immigration Services Division, or in the TSC - ensured that the FBI was aware of all INS documents related to Atta, Alshehhi, or the other terrorists. Most important, no one thought to inquire about the I-20s related to Atta's and Alshehhi's change of status applications or to find out where those I-20s were. This, in our view, was a failure on the part of many individuals in the INS.

  3. The INS's Response to OIG Criticism

    The OIG provided officials from the INS's Commissioner's Office with the opportunity to review this report prior to its release. In addition, Yates, Ohata, Cadman, Pearson, Ortiz, Bradford, and the former Acting Assistant Center Director for the Enforcement Operations Division at the TSC reviewed Chapter Five. All were permitted to provide comments in response to the report.

    INS Commissioner James Ziglar wrote in his response that the INS's failure to stop the delivery of Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s was "inexcusable" and said "[t]he INS does not hesitate to acknowledge this shortcoming." Other INS officials called the INS's inaction "regrettable" and "an embarrassment." Nonetheless, the reviewing officials offered many reasons why they believed INS officials should not be criticized for failing to provide the I-20s to the FBI. They asserted that because the investigation was under the jurisdiction of the FBI and because the FBI never asked the INS for the I-20s, the INS had no responsibility to provide the I-20s to the FBI. Several of them also implied that their responsibility is diminished by the fact that the I-20s were not necessary to the FBI's investigation. In addition, some reviewing officials argued that if INS had failed, it was the fault of others, not themselves.

    We do not find the reviewing officials' comments persuasive. Atta's and Alshehhi's I-20s continued to be processed after September 11, 2001, because none of the managers we discuss in this chapter ever considered the I-20s or took the appropriate managerial steps to ensure that their subordinates did. Although the FBI had primary jurisdiction over the investigation, INS employees were the only ones who were knowledgeable about the change of status process and therefore they had an obligation to bring the existence of these documents to the attention of the FBI. The FBI was not in a position to ask for specific documents it did not know existed.

    We agree that the absence of the I-20s did not ultimately hinder the FBI's investigation. While the fact that the I-20s turned out not to be of significant investigative value is fortuitous, it is irrelevant to the question of whether the INS should have thought about them and made the FBI aware of them. In addition, it was clear from our interviews that the failure to alert the FBI to the I-20s was not the result of a reasoned decision that the I-20s had no investigative value. Rather, INS personnel all acknowledged that they never thought about the I-20s. We believe this was an unjustified failure on their part.


Footnotes

  1. The TSC Enforcement Operations Division is different from the Headquarters Enforcement Division. The TSC Enforcement Operations Division reports to the TSC Center Director, who reports to the Immigration Services Division in INS Headquarters, not to the Enforcement Division in INS Headquarters.
  2. Both the Acting Assistant Center Director and the Senior Special Agent told the OIG that they no longer had any e-mail messages related to this issue.
  3. The lead was sent to the Dallas Division by electronic communication dated September 13, 2001, and indicated that a search warrant of a commercial post box maintained by Atta and Alshehhi revealed information that had come from the TSC.
  4. TSC personnel told the OIG that, although it was unclear why, the TSC kept a copy of the Atta file but did not keep a copy of the Alshehhi file.
  5. Yates said that since the events of September 11, an INS employee who has been working on various standard operating procedures was directed to expedite the completion of the national SOPs for I-20s.
  6. According to Yates, when news of Atta and Alshehhi's I-20s first appeared in the media, most managers from INS Headquarters were in San Francisco, California, for a Commissioner's Conference. He said that he discussed the issue of the contract and was told that it was an Inspections Division contract. In fact, the contract with ACS has been managed by the Inspections Division only since October 2001. Prior to that time, the Office of Information Resource Management was responsible for the contract.
  7. We discuss Pearson's actions in the next section of this chapter.
  8. Pearson told the OIG that only after the I-20s of Atta and Alshehhi appeared in the newspaper in March 2002 did he issue a specific order that all field offices be searched for any additional documents related to Atta and Alshehhi as well as the 17 other terrorists.



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