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Counter-Terrorism Alien Style: The Left’s Lost Opportunities By: Bill West
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, April 19, 2004

The political leaders of the 1990s paid lip service to immigration law enforcement and, notwithstanding strong laws passed by Congress, the political appointees running the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) saw to it that meaningful immigration law enforcement efforts, particularly in the interior of the US, were never fully supported.  They probably never envisioned the impact such negligence would have on the Nation’s security.  With the 9/11 Commission investigating all potentially significant issues impacting on the attacks and what could have been done to prevent them, immigration law enforcement policies in the decade before the attacks, when al-Qaeda was forming and growing, is certainly among those issues to be considered.

In the late 1980s, the INS formally joined the Department of Justice sponsored Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), a highly effective multi-agency counter-narcotics law enforcement program begun in 1982 that continues today.  With a modest contingent of just over 100 senior special agents assigned to the program nationwide, the INS efforts in OCDETF soon proved invaluable by bringing a unique investigative expertise and jurisdiction to drug enforcement.  Soon, drug trafficking organizations were being attacked with the added weapons of immigration law violations, and since virtually all international drug trafficking organizations involve foreign nationals who in some way violate immigration laws, a notable Achilles heel was exploited by bringing INS Special Agents into the OCDETF program.  Ironically, the civilian bureaucrats who ran INS resisted even the efforts of its parent agency the Justice Department to bring INS into the OCDETF program, and it literally took a special act of Congress to force INS to become a formal participating member. 

The FBI, as the lead counter-terrorism agency pre-9/11, recognized the benefits to the multi-agency task force approach to counter-terrorism investigations and created the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) program in the early 1990s.  In spite of requests from the FBI, the high command of INS during that time, of course, saw no need for formal involvement of INS personnel with the JTTF program.  In a couple of locations, however, such as New York and Miami, local INS law enforcement managers saw the light and assigned agents to the local terrorism task forces anyway, although in very limited numbers (INS Special Agents never numbered any more than 2,000 nationwide).  One might wonder, given that by its very nature international terrorism involves foreign nationals and the fact the Immigration and Nationality Act has specific provisions relating to national security and terrorism, why Clinton Administration INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, her various Deputy Commissioners and her several Executive Associate Commissioners for Field Operations (the three INS senior managers with the authority to actually approve a national INS counter-terrorism program) did not support the assignment of INS investigators to work with the FBI on counter-terrorism cases.  But, they did not.  In fact, Meissner is reported to have commented in a senior staff meeting, when the topic was brought up by subordinates, that national security was a matter strictly for the FBI.  An odd posture for an agency head with specific statutory authority related to national security matters.

Beginning as early as 1992, recommendations were made from certain field INS Investigations Division managers into INS Headquarters to have formal participation with the FBI in counter-terrorism cases.  After the 1993 first World Trade Center bombing and subsequent terror attacks and terror plots against US interests throughout the 1990s, which were primarily committed by alien terrorists, those recommendations from the field into INS Headquarters continued.  In 1994 and 1996, formal proposals were prepared for INS Headquarters relating to the creation of an INS National Security Unit and the formal assignment of INS Special Agents to terrorism task forces.  In fact, the recommendations and proposals suggested that INS have Special Agents assigned to every FBI field office where international counter-terrorism cases were assigned on a full-time basis.  All these recommendations and proposals were ignored by INS Headquarters until the late 1990s when a Headquarters “Counter-Terrorism Coordinator” position was created to facilitate a reassigned INS District Director from the field. 


To his credit, and against substantial odds created by INS management, that former District Director evolved the position into a viable National Security Unit (NSU) within Headquarters; however, in the convoluted structure that was INS, the NSU never had direct field operational authority to the field.  In the late 1990s, INS finally assigned a very small number (approximately 50) of Senior Special Agents to 13 Joint Terrorism Task Force locations around the country.  The problem to overcome was the fact that senior INS management essentially viewed national security as something INS had little or no role in which to play. 


This small movement forward into the counter-terrorism arena was possible primarily due to the recognition of some key senior career professionals at the FBI and Department of Justice who favored this, as well as the dogged persistence of a handful of INS folks within its Investigations Division.  The INS, from a formal investigative posture, was a very latecomer to the counter-terrorism scene.  And, when it did arrive, it came with only a handful of troops.  It was well into 1999 before the handful of INS JTTF Agents became fully operational, and even then they suffered under the archaic and notably ineffective and convoluted District structure that was the INS in the field.  Very limited numbers of agents were trying to work national and international level counter-terrorism cases with the FBI and other agencies through an INS structure still mired in the 1950s; with the fairly well run Headquarters National Security Unit, often making back-door efforts, never officially and really empowered to control field operations functioning mostly in an advisory role.  At best, the embryonic INS counter-terrorism program was lurching forward one small step at a time.               


One might also wonder, if from the early 1990s 100 or so senior special agents of the INS, emulating its successful drug task force program, had been assigned full time to the terrorism task forces nationwide, and at least one each INS Agent had been assigned to those other non-JTTF FBI offices where they still had regular counter-terrorism casework, with those agents working jointly with the FBI and other agencies on counter-terrorism matters well before September 2001, developing their own independent but shared network of information sources within the Intelligence Community, developing their own independent but shared informants (something INS agents are especially adept at doing) within the Muslim communities, having direct and immediate access to the full panoply of immigration record systems and being able to interpret those records on-site, and being able to effect warrantless arrests for immigration violations of suspects encountered on the street and detain them for further investigation…how that entrenched and seasoned cadre of INS agents assigned to counter-terrorism work might have impacted 9/11?  The CIA knew about two of the hijackers from surveillance in the Philippines. 


If the CIA’s “routine” immigration inquiries on those two had been routed to INS’ counter-terrorism contingent, maybe the inquiry wouldn’t have been considered so “routine.”  If the Minneapolis FBI’s concerns about Moussoui had been passed to an INS counter-terrorism counterpart, and that information passed to the Headquarters National Security Unit, who could have then relayed the information to counterpart INS agents in the field for queries at local flight schools, on their immigration authority, in a low key manner not arousing suspicion about similar Middle-East flight students.  Or, if an INS agent had drafted a search warrant affidavit for Moussoui’s computer looking for evidence of immigration crimes such as visa fraud.  When that alert Immigration Inspector in Orlando detained and turned around the suspect who, as it turns out, was likely the real 20th hijacker being met by Atta, had there been a viable INS counter-terrorism agent presence in Orlando just maybe the Inspector would have called them in before the suspect was removed, so he could be further interrogated and, just maybe, the airport waiting area outside searched (where Atta was waiting).  Or, just maybe an INS Muslim informant that might have been developed in one of those key locations like South Florida or Los Angeles would have picked up some vital information and passed it along.


All this is pure speculation.  But, it is informed and reasonable speculation.  If the INS had a viable and reasonable investigative contingent assigned nationally to counter-terrorism work, there is at least a reasonable expectation the 9/11 attack plan might have been discovered, disrupted and prevented.  Such INS participation with the FBI would have provided a unique investigative presence, bringing to the task force not only the criminal enforcement authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act but also the powerful administrative enforcement authority under the deportation provisions of that Act.  Often, the only violation available to such a task force would be an immigration violation…as proven time and again in the post-9/11 world of US law enforcement efforts.  Repeated recommendations to establish such investigative efforts with the FBI came from within the ranks of the INS beginning almost a decade before the 9/11 attacks, and senior management ignored those recommendations.  Moreover, that same senior management, which generally viewed immigration law enforcement as something to barely be tolerated, viewed national security as something completely alien to the mission of the INS.  It took significant outside influence to realize even a slight commitment of investigative resources to these critical matters, and by then it was very late in al-Qaeda’s game.  Sadly, it was only after the 9/11 attacks that INS became truly serious about its counter-terrorism participation. 


Bill West is a retired INS Supervisory Special Agent. 

Bill West is a retired INS/ICE Supervisory Special Agent who ran organized crime and national security investigations. He is now a counter-terrorism consultant and freelance writer.

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