A border agent said Monday that the suspected ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks raised enough red flags at customs - including having the wrong student visa - that he should been prevented from entering the United States.
Customs agent Jose E. Melendez-Perez, testifying at a public hearing on border and aviation security, said lead hijacker Mohamed Atta's age and impeccable clothes also appeared to contradict his story about being a student.
"I would have recommended refusal," Melendez-Perez said.
Atta's improper entry is one of a series of errors by government officials prior to Sept. 11 that could have prevented the attacks, an independent commission investigating the terrorist attacks said Monday in releasing new details about the attack.
Some of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were allowed into the country despite carrying fraudulent visas and being questioned by customs agents, the commission said.
For example, hijacker Saeed al Ghamdi was referred to immigration inspection officials in June 2001 after he provided no address on his customs form and only had a one-way plane ticket and about $500. But al Ghamdi was able to persuade the inspector that he was a tourist.
"Our government did not fully exploit al-Qaida's travel vulnerabilities," the commission said at the start of a two-day public hearing on border and aviation security.
Investigators say at least two and as many as eight of the hijackers had fraudulent visas. They also found that at least six of the hijackers violated immigration laws by overstaying their visas or failing to attend the English language school for which their visas were issued.
The commission said part of the problem was a lack of coordination among immigration officials and a focus on keeping out illegal immigrants rather than keeping out potential terrorists.
Melendez-Perez, who spoke at Monday's hearing, stopped a man identified by federal officials only as al-Qahtani at Florida's Orlando International Airport in late August 2001. The agent said he became suspicious when al-Qahtani provided only vague answers about what he was doing in the United States.
U.S. officials then put al-Qahtani on a plane back to Saudi Arabia. He wound up in Afghanistan, where he was captured by U.S. forces. He now is being held with other captives at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"This is an example of how a well-trained and alert INS inspector performed admirably in refusing admission to the United States of an individual who should not have gained entry," said Richard Ben-Veniste, a Democratic commission member and former Watergate prosecutor.
Tuesday's hearing will focus on vulnerabilities and security failures within the nation's aviation system and the response to the hijackings that killed more than 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in southwestern Pennsylvania.
"There has been a lot written about 9-11, but there are a few things that will change our impressions of some of it," said Al Felzenberg, spokesman for the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon The United States, better known as the 9-11 commission.
"This hearing may cause people to rethink the conventional wisdom," he said.
The hearing, the seventh held by the commission since its formation in late 2002, comes as the panel scrambles to meet a May 27 deadline to complete its report for the president and Congress.
The 10-member, bipartisan commission has been bogged down by disputes with the Bush administration and New York City officials over access to documents and witnesses.
A growing number of commission members support extending the deadline by at least three months. But such a move, which would push the report's release into the height of the presidential election season, has met resistance from administration officials and House leaders.
Mary Fetchet of Connecticut, who lost her son Brad in the attacks, said many family members of those who died support moving back the deadline if it ensures a complete and fair accounting of what went wrong and why.
"An extension is imperative," she said. "This commission started up very slowly and hit every roadblock imaginable. This should be a priority."
On the Net:
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States: