ASHINGTON, March 12 — Six months after Mohamed Atta and
Marwan al-Shehhi crashed hijacked airliners into the World Trade
Center, the Immigration and Naturalization Service sent out a
routine notice this week telling a flight school that the two men
had been approved for student visas to study there.
Embarrassed by the disclosure that the school had received the
notifications on Monday, six months to the day after the attacks,
the agency said it approved student visas for the two men last
summer, before either had been identified as suspected
After Sept. 11, the agency said, it failed to halt the normal
process of having a subcontractor notify the school, Huffman
Aviation in Venice, Fla., that it had authorized the student visas
for the two, who are now among the world's most infamous
The mistake was another embarrassing gaffe for an agency that has
long been criticized in Congress for sloppy management and inept
record keeping and for being unable to control the borders or keep
track of foreigners in the United States legally or illegally.
A spokesman for the immigration agency, Russ Bergeron, said it
regretted that it had not notified the subcontractor before it sent
the letters last week. Mr. Bergeron said he knew of no other letters
related to any other hijackers.
"We certainly regret that our contractor was not notified after
Sept. 11," he said. "It was our responsibility to notify the
contractor that the notifications were not needed in this case."
In a draft statement, the agency acknowledged that its system was
flawed. But those admissions were deleted from the final statement
issued this evening. The draft statement said, "This incident also
highlights the need to replace a student information collections
systems that I.N.S. has long stated was antiquated, inaccurate,
untimely and of little utility to I.N.S., school or students."
The error seemed particularly difficult to explain, because Mr.
Atta and Mr. Shehhi were among the most infamous of the 19
hijackers. The authorities say they believe that Mr. Atta, the
suspected ringleader of the operation, was at the controls of
American Airlines Flight 11, which struck the north tower of the
trade center to begin the attacks. Mr. Shehhi was the suspected
pilot on United Airlines Flight 175, which slammed into the south
Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the senior Democrat
on the House Judiciary Committee, said he was astonished at the
slipshod handling of the visas.
"I have been wondering for some time whether this administration
suffers from myopia as it continues with a misguided focus in
pursuit of homeland security," Mr. Conyers said. "I am astonished
that while the I.N.S. is fixated on detaining and rounding up
countless Arab-Americans without any justification, it has failed to
take basic steps to ensure that visas are not issued to known
The flight school filed the requests for M-1 student visas for
the two men in August 2000. The requests sought to change the men's
visas from nonimmigrant visitor to student to let them take a
$27,000 yearlong professional course.
The agency approved the requests on July 17, 2001, in Mr. Atta's
case, and on Aug. 9 in Mr. Shehhi's. But CNN, which first reported
the agency's action today, said the letters were postmarked last
In its statement, the agency said: "It is important to emphasize
that the decisions regarding the request to change status were made
in the summer of 2001, prior to the tragic events of Sept. 11. It is
equally important to recognize that when the applications were
approved, the I.N.S. had no information indicating that Atta or
Shehhi had ties to terrorist organizations."
Letters to the two men would have been generated automatically
and sent to them shortly after the visas had been approved. The
flight school would have been notified as a follow- up.
The letters to Huffman Aviation were sent from the I.N.S. Student
Processing Center, operated by ACS Inc., a contractor in London, Ky.
The company has processed arrival and departure forms for foreign
students, business visitors and travelers.