The mailing gave Mohamed Atta pilot status.
On the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,
the Venice, Fla., flight school that trained two of the airplane
hijackers received new immigration visas changing their legal status
from tourists to student pilots.
The owner of Huffman Aviation International expressed surprise
after getting the visa-approval notifications in Monday's mail from
the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
The visas were for Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who
commandeered and then piloted two jetliners into New York City's
World Trade Center. The documents formalized their INS status as
nonresident student pilots.
INS officials conceded Tuesday that the long-after-the-fact
mailing, which bore a March 5 postmark, was embarrassing. Since the
terrorist attacks, the agency has been criticized for not adequately
screening foreign nationals who come to the United States to visit,
study or work.
''It's regrettable that the flight school is receiving the
paperwork on this late date,'' said Russ Bergeron, the INS spokesman
``The important thing to recognize is the decisions to change
their status were made . . . before Sept. 11, and at the time there
was no information made available to INS regarding these people and
their link to terrorism.''
INS officials said the episode was caused by a backlog in data
entry of the visa notifications. Though the two applications were
approved last summer, the delay held up the mailing to the school
until last week.
Bergeron said the data entry and mailing were done by an outside
contractor, Affiliated Computer Services. The London, Ky., company
was hired to reduce the backlog of typing written notifications into
the agency's databases.
Bergeron said the notification received by the flight school was
the second one sent out. He said INS had already advised Atta and
al-Shehhi their visa applications were accepted weeks before Sept.
The problem arose because INS never thought about contacting ACS
and telling them not to proceed with the mailing -- because Atta and
al-Shehhi were dead.
Atta's visa change was approved July 17, 2001, and al-Shehhi's on
Aug. 9, 2001, according to copies of the notifications obtained by
Rudi Dekkers, owner and president of Huffman Aviation, said Atta
and al-Shehhi completed paperwork on the the M-1 nonimmigrant
student visas on Aug. 29, 2000, just before they began a six-month
flight instruction program at the school.
According to travel records obtained by The Herald shortly after
the attacks, the hijackers first entered the country on
multiple-entry tourist visas -- al-Shehhi on May 29, 2000, and Atta
on June 3, 2000.
About six months later, when Atta was returning from a trip to
Madrid on Jan. 10, 2001, INS inspectors at Miami International
Airport became suspicious after he mentioned taking flight lessons
on the tourist visa.
It was not illegal for foreign nationals to take flight lessons
while using a tourist visa. But immigration officials prefer
immigrants who are studying in the United States to have student
After interrogating him, inspectors decided not to detain Atta
because he had applied for the student visa.
There is no record that al-Shehhi was also questioned about his
In their student visa notifications, both men were cleared to
stay in the United States until Oct. 1, 2001. The men completed
their flight course on Jan. 3, 2001 -- more than six months before
their visas were approved.
On Tuesday, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., criticized the visa
''I am astonished that while the INS is fixated on detaining and
rounding up countless Arab Americans without any justification, it
has failed to take basic steps to ensure that visas are not issued
to known terrorists,'' he said.
Dekkers said the forms vindicated that his school did not break
''What is odd to me is that the visas were approved six months
after they left,'' Dekkers said. ``When they hit the buildings, they
were approved to be here.''
This report was supplemented with material from The Associated