by Ron Kenner
American Reporter Correspondent
August 5, 2005
ANNIVERSARY OF 9/11 HIJACKERS' U.S. ENTRY GOES UNNOTICED
LOS ANGELES -- Exactly four years ago, on Aug. 4, 2001, Mohammed al-Qahtani, the supposed 20th hijacker, was rejected from entry at the international airport in Orlando, Fla., after an alert immigration official, José Melendez-Perez, refused to give the usual cursory glance, as he explained it, to an entrant from Saudi Arabia.
According to Sen. Bob Graham, author of "Intelligence Matters" (with assistance by Jeff Nussbaum), "Many of the other agents thought Melendez-Perez was risking his career because, as he later told me in an interview, it is made clear to customs officials in their training that Saudis are different. He told me he was taught that a Saudi encountered in the course of duty is to be treated with deference and special respect. Supervisors feared that the initiation of enforcement action against a Saudi would get them fired."
Even so, during the interview Melendez-Perez was concerned, Sen. Graham added. "He (Al-Qahtani) grew increasingly defiant during their ninety-minute interrogation, and Melendez-Perez concluded that he should be barred from entry to the United States and returned to Saudi Arabia. Still, his fellow inspectors told him that he was 'crazy' to deny entry to a Saudi."
As it turned out a month later, 15 of the 19 highjackers on September 11 were from Saudi Arabia, and as it turned out after that, of course, in lieu of a prompt and serious U.S. investigation of the terrorist attack a number of Saudi officials who many authorities feel should have been held for questioning were instead given blue-ribbon treatment and quietly and quickly whisked out of the country by plane with official U.S. help.
Meanwhile, at the Orlando airport on Aug. 4, 2001, "Melendez-Perez's instincts proved correct. Waiting outside the airport for Al-Qahtani was Mohammed Atta," Sen. Graham wrote. Mohammed Atta has been named as an alleged ringleader of the 19 hijackers.
Mohammed al-Qahtani would later be arrested on murder charges after being nabbed in Afghanistan and taken to prison at Guantánamo Bay. Meanwhile, the 15 Saudis and the other terrorist hijackers, two from the UAE, one from Lebanon and one from Egypt, apparently entered the U.S. with little difficulty. That embarrassment would be compounded, of course, by later reports of Al-Qahtani being tortured at Guantánamo Bay.
On January 16, 2004, the New York Daily News reported in an article by James Gordon Meek that, "incredibly, FBI agents investigating the Sept. 11 attacks never interviewed Melendez-Perez. An FBI source told the Daily News that Melendez-Perez escaped the bureau's attention because agents instead interviewed Al-Qahtani at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he has been held since his capture in Afghanistan in late 2001.
"The FBI concluded in July 2002 he (Al-Qahtani) was probably supposed to be the fifth hijacker aboard United flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. The FBI source added in July [some eight months after the terrorist attacks] that Melendez-Perez may soon be debriefed."
As well as Al-Qahtani, there were other warnings and lost leads several months before the terrorist hijacking in September 2001.
As Sen. Graham noted in his book, "By the summer of 2001, Bush was being berated in the press for not being a particularly hard worker, a chorus that intensified when he announced in July that he would be taking a thirty-one day vacation beginning in August [one month before the highjacking] and lasting through Labor Day. The Washington Post calculated that by that date President Bush would have spent 42 percent of his time in office either on vacation or on his way to vacation."
Meanwhile on August 6, four years ago this week, "the President's Daily Brief was presented to him by John McLaughlin, George Tenet's deputy at the CIA. One section bore the headline. "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in U.S."
For some two years after the terrorist attack, Sen. Graham noted in "Intelligence Matters," (Random House, 2004) "I would organize and co-chair an unprecedented joint House-Senate investigation of the intelligence failures that allowed the attacks to take place. Ultimately, I would reach the conclusion that September 11 was the culmination of a long trail of American intelligence failures both at home and abroad-an almost bewildering array of mistakes, missteps, and missed opportunities caused by warring government cultures, bureaucratic incompetence and neglect, lack of imagination, and perhaps, most tragic of all, a failure of leadership at the highest levels of government."
As the senator noted in the introduction to his book, "I also intend to outline the disgraceful manner in which the administration of President George W. Bush has repeatedly hindered the full investigation of September 11, and then turned its attention and resources to Iraq - an act that has served to make Americans less secure than they were before that fateful Tuesday morning in September 2001." Ron Kenner is a former metroplitan staff reporter for the Los Angeles Times,the author of a best-selling book on Charles Manson, and a longimte copmntributor to AR.