Posted on September 27, 2004

Terrorist Backers In; Common Sense Out, Sep. 14

I was driving along the other day listening to the radio when on came an announcement from the New Jersey Domestic Preparedness Task Force.

“Terrorists will attack again in America,” it said. “You should be ready — where you live, where you work and where you travel.”

I’m sure I should. But every time I hear this sort of thing, I ask myself a basic question: How can the terrorists attack us if we don’t let them into the country?

As it happens, the 9/11 commission recently asked the same question. Last month the commission released a report titled “9/11 and Terrorist Travel.” It was a supplement to its main report.

The first words are: “It is perhaps obvious to state that terrorists cannot plan and carry out attacks within the United States if they cannot enter the country.”

That’s obvious to me. And I’m sure it’s obvious to you. But it raises a question: Why don’t we prevent potential terrorists from entering the country?

As it happens, I recently had an exchange with Rep. Barney Frank on that exact subject on these pages. I noted that in 1987 the Massachusetts Democrats sponsored a law that made it easier for people with questionable backgrounds to enter the United States.

In a letter to the editor, Frank responded, “Mulshine asks what I was thinking when I ‘sponsored a bill that precluded immigration officials from refusing entry to foreigners with admitted terrorist connections.’ The answer is nothing because I never sponsored any such legislation.”

Frank went on to note, “I did sponsor legislation . . . that ended the practice of excluding people from our country because we disagree with their political views.”

Okay. Suppose a citizen of Saudi Arabia shows up for a visa interview wearing a T-shirt that says “I love Osama.” Should that person be refused a visa?

“A T-shirt is not a terrorist connection,” Frank said when I got him on the phone yesterday. “If all you’ve done was to wear T-shirt, I don’t think you should be excluded.”

That’s not just Frank’s opinion. That’s U.S. policy. Jessica Vaughn of the Center for Immigration studies notes that American immigration officials are told that they can’t even consider political opinions when issuing visas. Showing up for an immigration interview with an “I love Osama” T-shirt is perfectly acceptable, she said.

“You can never refuse somebody on those grounds,” Vaughn told me. “The person practically has to come in and say, ‘Yeah, I was going to blow up whatever.’ And that might not be enough if they didn’t do it.”

In his letter to me, Frank said of the bill he sponsored, “Every one of the terrorists involved in Sept. 11 was completely excludable under this law.”

True enough. But only if the terrorist in question had been nice enough to admit he was a terrorist. The commission report shows the visa application of hijacker Mohand al Shehri. Next to Shehri’s scowling face are the words, “Are you a member or a representative of a terrorist organization?” Al Shehri checked the “no” box. That was enough to get him admitted to the country. This would be a comedy of errors if it weren’t a tragedy.

Al Shehri and many of the other hijackers still could have been excluded on other grounds, such as incomplete information on their applications. But the immigration service was understaffed. Interviewers didn’t have the time to review applications. The Bush administration is still refusing to give immigration officials the resources they need to police the borders, Frank said.

“They haven’t put enough money into it,” said Frank of immigration enforcement.

But they’ve put plenty of money into attacking Iraq, he noted, about $200 billion or so.

“We’re not going to be able to get them all over there,” Frank said of the terrorists.

No, we’re not. I rarely agree with Frank on anything, but I’m with him on that point. It’s insane to spend hundreds of billions remaking the map of the Mideast when we could shore up our borders for a fraction of that amount. If we’re truly going to have a “war on terror,” we should close the borders to all nations that supply soldiers for the other side in that war. But it’s not up to me. It’s up to the Bush administration.

“Even after 19 hijackers demonstrated the relative ease of gaining a U.S. visa and entering the United States, border security still is not considered a cornerstone of national security policy,” the report states.

The report goes on to observe, “It must be made one.”

I agree with that. In the meantime, instead of running all those ads, I’d suggest the homeland security people print a bunch of bumper stickers. How about “Honk if you’re a terrorist”? That should root them out.

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