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Monday, March 18, 2002

 
--- "Atta's Last Visa, Baby": A Case of Manufactured Outrage? ---

Truth may be stranger than fiction ... but sometimes the story line is embellished strangely by strange script doctors.

The story line: Student visa approval notices arrive by mail at the flight school where 9/11 attack team leader Mohomed Atta and co-conspirator Marwan Al-Shehhi prepped for aero-ballistic martyrdom. The applications rumbled through INS bueaucracy and emerged just in time (3/11) for the semi-anniversary observances of 9/11 terrorist attacks. Public outrage ensues, heads roll, and INS reform kicks into high gear.

What's wrong with this picture? To the general public, "what's wrong" is that some INS numbskull processed and approved enabling paperwork for a notorious evildoer (and his slightly less-notorious accomplice), and that INS systems and safeguards failed to catch it ... or even locate the paperwork for two of the most heavily investigated names on the planet.

To CP's gimlet eye, the occasion reeks of non-credible coincidence, systemic misreporting, adventitious hype and opportunistic exploitation for political gain.

Begin with too-perfect timing. Suppose that -- for whatever reason -- Atta's visa approval was a sure thing. What were the odds that this particular work item would wend its way through INS workflow and fall into the jaws of waiting newshounds with perfect timing for the 24-hour news cycle surrounding 9/11's semi-anniversary?

The approximate 3 year backlog in non-priority INS taskwork would suggest odds on the order of 1,000-to-1. Of course the mail could have arrived on other significant dates ... the first anniversary, or Fourth of July. Conservatively, let's call it 100-to-1 against.

Now, what are the odds that Al-Shehhi's approval would land in the flight school mailbox on the same day as Atta's?

Make a best-case assumption that both applications were submitted on the same day. [Apparently they were.] As work items proceed step by step through a bureaucratic paperflow lattice, they have numerous opportunities to fan out to different case workers, to take alternate branches of situationally-required procedure, to find themselves stacked in different stacks, batched in different batches, backlogged behind different higher-priority or unusually time-consuming cases. How long it takes to reach the end of the maze is largely the luck of the draw -- repeated shuffles, repeated draws -- unless the agency is persistently badgered by knowledgeable, interested parties.

Again, assuming that Atta and Al-Shehhi were identical cases [they weren't], that they entered the system simultaneously, and that their eventual approvals were fait accompli, I'd make their odds of simultaneous (same day) completion about 100-to-1 against.

That raises the combined odds against such an oddity to a very conservative 10,000-to-1 against ... at which point we are moved to inquire further: "Whose dice are these, anyhow?" ... "Let's review the tape" ... and "Quo vadis?".


Who benefits? Several points of context are suggestive:
(1) In DC (Dumbbell Configuration) factional politics, one faction has invested decades of priority effort in a largely successful PR campaign to disparage public institutions. This campaign has recently encountered significant setbacks. Following a decade of operational microreform in government, a decade of creeping corruption and customer alienation in major business sectors, and heroic public sector response to 9/11, the general public now expects government to do the right thing! Perhaps more remarkably, public agencies now rate on par with big business in independent customer satisfaction surveys. This alleged INS debacle provides a convenient opportunity to reinforce deep, diffuse popular pre-impressions of hopeless bureaucratic incompetence.

(2) INS is a particular (strategic or opportunistic) target for multiple agendas, covering the spectrum from fortress-America nativists to open-border multiculturalists.

(3) During the Clinton era, almost every major federal agency -- even such hard nuts as IRS and FAA -- achieved significant reforms in operational efficiency, customer service quality and/or mission effectiveness. [This trend is mirrored at state and local levels, and might persist regardless of leadership as information technologies percolate through agency infrastructure.] INS is the lone surviving major enclave of unreconstructed old-school bureaucracy.

(4) INS is a focal agency -- and locus of suddenly-evident required transformation -- in the new normalcy of perpetual war against terrorism.

(5) INS presents a convenient and largely defenseless scapegoat for more agile front-line defense and intelligence agencies who might wish to deflect attention from their own subpar performance. [1993 White House "Filegate" hearings featured many such CYA shenanigans.]

(6) Even in the most ordinary circumstances, INS produces a reliable parade of bureaucratic horribles ... and thus cultivates a virtual ecosystem of passionate enemies and retributive agendas.

(7) INS workflow is a target for public/private vendors. Would a prospective vendor actually use underhanded tactics to discredit its peers or client-internal competition? Anyone who's been on any side of the table in big league private/private outsource negotiations will have no trouble answering that one.


All this is to suggest that any of several actors might have any of several reasons to exploit such an unlikely event. In particular, the Bush43 administration has its own INS reform plan (or plans) on the drawing board, and seems to have lost not a single beat in exploiting the occasion, dispensing with formalities and pressing these plans forward. Without respect to the merits or motives of any such plans, CP suspects this apparent very public betrayal of public trust was a purposefully orchestrated inside job.


Now to the press. This story would not have made such a good story -- nor incited so much public indignation -- had more salient details made it into the lead paragraphs.

exactly what arrived in whose mail March 11? Newly approved student visas for known (and now deceased) terrorists? No. These were secondary notifications -- to the school, not the student -- confirming that visas had been approved and issued to two (living and not-yet-notorious) al Qaeda operatives last summer. These factual notices were factually correct -- though overdue -- and are apparently superfluous, since the school is under no obligation to verify visa status, student visas were not required, and status could have been verified from student's copies in case the school were interested.

In fact, applications for student visas were submitted under the school's sponsorship 2000-08-29, approved 2001-07-17 (for Atta) and 2001-08-09 (Al-Shehhi), at which time neither appeared on any US intelligence watchlist. Both, incidentally, completed flight training in January ... long before the visa applications cleared INS.


And did some mindless government desk-jockey find paperwork for "Mohomed Atta" in his in-basket, fail to recognize it ("Oh, THAT Mohomed Atta!") and lazily stamp it "APPROVED"? Not exactly. The belated secondary notifications were processed (mindlessly, if you like) by Affiliated Computer Services, Inc. in London, KY under a five-year, $75M outsourcing contract -- your tax dollars at work in the private sector.

Dallas-based ACS (a $2B multinational business, and a 99% GOP hard and soft money contributor) says "Not My Department":
Lesley Pool, the company's chief marketing officer, said ... "Our clients own this data, operate on this data," Pool said. "Our role is purely handling the paper."
Public reports to date are not specific as to whether this was a casewise, eyes-on manual procedure, or a rote computerized batch fulfillment process ... nor do we know the last point at which this data was in direct INS custody.

But we've known for years that INS is years behind in its work, so ... the news in this story, as most widely understood by the general public, is not true, and to the extent it is true, is not new.