The good news is U.S. airport traffic is returning to pre-9/11 levels. The bad news is, so are security priorities at international terminals, where some of the 9/11 hijackers entered the U.S. illegally.
New internal memos I've obtained show the Homeland Security Department seems more worried about getting foreign travelers to their destinations on time than screening them for terror ties.
In fact, I've learned the department has formed a so-called Airport Wait Time working group, which met for the first time in December to come up with a national strategy to clock federal inspectors processing foreign travelers entering the U.S. at major international airports. Those who take too long are written up.
Airport immigration inspectors are our first line of defense against terrorists entering the country. They check fingerprints and photographs against terror watchlists and question suspicious foreign passengers.
Yet they are under new pressure to clear planes in response to complaints from airlines about security related delays.
"Flight times are now much more important than catching terrorists, drugs or illegals," a Customs and Border Protection supervisor at a major international airport told me. "We are always pressured to clear passengers in under 60 minutes, no matter what -- even though Congress lifted that mandate after 9/11."
Indeed, Congress and the president supposedly did away with such passenger-processing deadlines under the USA Patriot Act to make sure antiterrorist screening is not rushed and no terrorists slip through the cracks.
The 60-minute clock starts ticking as soon as planes block at the gate, before international passengers even deplane, and keeps ticking as they walk from the plane to the inspections lines. To meet the new deadline, inspectors working large flights say they must rush through US-VISIT screening procedures, which were recently expanded to include Visa Waiver Program passengers from countries like Britain.
Making matters worse, they are plagued by chronic computer problems. Sometimes the national security system goes on the blink for hours at a time, and outages have been occurring almost on a daily basis, they say. Under such circumstances, some foreign passengers are admitted unscreened.
No matter, headquarters has other priorities -- namely, keeping foreign travelers happy. In fact, a separate DHS memo distributed last year admonishes federal inspectors to "smile" more as part of a new campaign to make what it calls their foreign "customers" feel welcome.
In the new DHS memo, dated May 2, 2005, and titled “Airport Wait Times Reporting Requirement-Update,” CBP field directors are ordered to collect and report wait-time data to headquarters for review "on a daily basis."
"Managers report primary and secondary [inspection] wait times for all of their commercial flights on a daily basis using a template developed by" the Office of Field Operations, says the two-page memo signed by CBP Executive Operations Director Patricia M. Duffy. "The template is designed to capture the average primary wait time and record information on all flights exceeding 60 minutes."
Some officials complain the collection of data also distracts from what should be their main mission of screening out terrorists.
"Look at all the effort that goes into this!" one CBP official exclaimed. "What about catching bad guys?"
Even the memo from headquarters acknowledges that "this process is extremely labor intensive."
Several airports have been mercifully exempted from the daily reporting requirement, since they "do not appear to have significant problems with their wait times," the memo says. They include major airports in Boston, Philadelphia, Orlando, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Detroit, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Baltimore and Seattle.
The memo notes that 12 of the 21 busiest airports account for 96 percent of the number of flights with wait times exceeding 60 minutes.
To reduce flight delays at these airports, DHS exempts a number of passengers from US-VISIT security screening if necessary, including teens, elderly, families, foreign pilots and religious workers such as imams, according to memo dated Jan. 2, 2004, and marked "LAW ENFORCEMENT SENSITIVE."
Foreign air crews are exempt even though a number of Saudi and other foreign Muslim airline pilots have been linked to terrorism.
So are Muslim clerics staying in the U.S. on R-1 and R-2 visas. Such foreign religious workers have been ranked the "lowest threat" among the 10 visa classifications (I've redacted the specific rankings, from highest threat to lowest, for obvious reasons). Yet hundreds of Muslim clerics have been linked to terrorism, many of whom still preach in the U.S.
Just last week, federal authorities arrested two Pakistani imams in connection with a terror case involving a possible al-Qaeda cell in the sleepy farming community of Lodi, Calif. The men allegedly violated the terms of their religious worker visas.
The leniency DHS gives such visiting clerics alarms GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, since many are "calling for the violent overthrow of the nation" from mosque pulpits.
"They enter into this country, they are assigned to mosques. And most of the mosques in the United States are being built with Saudi money, most of them are Wahhabi. And these people, many of them, preach essentially sedition," Tancredo asserted in a recent hearing on border security held by the House International Relations Committee. "What these imams have said even outside the mosque would under any other situation, if anybody else would say these things, be considered to be seditious, and even charges would be brought on that basis."
He says putting them at the top of the list for exemption from fingerprinting and terror monitoring is the height of naiveté, and he's right. Many Muslim clerics use their religiosity simply as cover to carry out terror-related activities, such as recently convicted imam Ali al-Timimi, who encouraged young Virginia Muslims to kill Americans abroad.
To be fair, the government in monitoring immigration at airports in a post-9/11 world is hard-pressed to strike the right balance between security and commerce.
But right now it appears to be appeasing the travel industry at the expense of national security, and may only be inviting another 9/11.
Paul Sperry, a Hoover Institution media fellow and Investor's Business Daily veteran, is author of the just-released book, INFILTRATION: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington (Nelson Current, 2005). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.