Flight school told that hijackers approved for visa change

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

WASHINGTON -- The Florida flight school where two Sept. 11 hijackers had trained received belated, formal notification this week that the Immigration and Naturalization Service had approved the requests for student visas.

Huffman Aviation received the paperwork acknowledging the INS approvals for Mohamed Atta, 33, of Egypt and Marwan Al-Shehhi, 23, of the United Arab Emirates.

Atta and Al-Shehhi trained at Huffman in Venice, Fla., in July 2000, and were aboard separate flights that struck the towers of the World Trade Center. The two initially entered the United States on visitor's visas but applied for an M-1 student visa, given to immigrants attending technical schools in the United States.

A spokesman for the immigration service, Russ Bergeron, said the INS already had notified the men and the school last summer about the approvals and described the paperwork Huffman received this week as "backup notification." The INS approved Atta's request in July 2001 and Al-Shehhi's request the following month, Bergeron said.

Bergeron attributed the embarrassing delay in a backlog of documents at a federal paperwork processing center in London, Ky.

"Because of a backlog of data entry, materials are just now arriving at the school," he said

But John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the notification was a sign of Bush administration's "misguided focus in pursuit of homeland security."

"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," said Conyers, D-Mich.

U.S. authorities believe Atta was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, and that Al-Shehhi was aboard United Airlines Flight 175, which struck the south tower 17 minutes later.

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