WASHINGTON – The U.S. government believes as many as eight of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks came from Saudi Arabia, but it still routinely issues tens of thousands of visas to Saudis each year without interviews or extensive background checks.
Far tougher conditions are imposed on other visitors from the Middle East.
On busy days, overwhelmed U.S. Embassy officials issue hundreds of Saudi visas in Riyadh and Jeddah. No special requirements are imposed because, in the past, Saudis had a good record of complying with visa requirements.
In contrast, Iranians must wait 30 days for background checks. Iraqis must await approval from Washington. Syrian applicants are given special scrutiny, an effort to identify any interested in sensitive technical information.
All U.S. consulates must run names through a State Department database of people with past immigration problems.
For Saudis this is mostly routine, although U.S. officials who recently served there estimated they made a half-dozen requests a day for further checks.
Saudis were issued 60,508 visas in the last fiscal year. The figure includes Saudis who applied from other countries. This compares to 21,811 for Jordanians, 48,883 for Egyptians, 143,297 for Israelis, 14,344 for Syrians, 24,932 for Iranians and 2,992 for Iraqis.
Since the attacks, the State Department has told U.S. posts across the globe to review visa procedures and "see where things may be strengthened," a department official said.
The FBI has said as many as eight of the hijackers may have been Saudis, although the use of false names in some cases has made a precise accounting impossible.
In addition, Saudi Arabia appeared 56 times on a U.S. list of 370 individuals and organizations with suspected links to the attacks. The list was made public by financial authorities in Finland.
"Our major concern was whether an applicant was going to come back. In most cases Saudis came back because they're very tied to their country," said Joseph Nowell, deputy consul-general at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh from 1998 through September 2000.
"The Saudis are good risks," he said. "Has the risk changed? Yes, but I'm not sure what I'd do about it."
Wyche Fowler, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia until March, agreed, "We had almost no problems with Saudis skipping out on visas or overstaying their visa time."
Nowell and other officials who worked in the embassy said that before Sept. 11, there was little discussion of the possibility that Saudis might visit the United States to commit terrorist acts. Officials were more concerned about threats against the embassy, and other U.S. targets in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.
A database available to U.S. consulates has 5.7 million names of those with past immigration problems. It includes some law enforcement and intelligence information. The FBI has refused for years to give consulates direct access to its crime database, arguing it only should be accessible to law enforcement and criminal justice agencies.
Even if the database had a better link to law enforcement records, that still would not necessarily prevent terrorists from getting visas because they might not have criminal records in the United States.
And even the best of databases would not catch potential terrorists who sneak into the United States.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service has said 15 of the 19 suspected hijackers entered this country legally while there are no records of the other four. Those entering legally had the kinds of visas routinely granted each year to millions of foreign tourists, students, workers and business travelers.
The Saudi government would not oppose stricter enforcement of visa policy, said Nail Al-Jubeir, a spokesman at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
"There needs be some kind of control even for our own sake," he said. "We want it to be whatever the U.S. government deems necessary."
Al-Jubeir said his government has not been able to confirm how many hijackers were from Saudi Arabia because of the use of false names. He said he had no information on those named on the Finnish list, but cautioned it may ruin the reputations of innocent people.
U.S. embassy employees who are nationals from a host country are permitted to process visa applications, but only a U.S. official can issue a visa. During busy periods in the Riyadh embassy, four people with decision-making authority issued more than 900 visas a day, Nowell said. That did not include visas granted by the consulate in Jeddah.
The embassy official must check each applicant's name against the State Department's database. Nowell said the database sometimes produces names of 100 questionable individuals, as a possible match, each time a visa applicant's name is punched in.
In almost all cases, the official decides the applicant's name does not match any of the questionable names in the database and grants the visa, he said.