Overstay Tracking

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Overstay Tracking

GAO report on 13 of the hijackers involved in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks

Government report

By: United States Government Accountability Office (GAO)

Date: May 2004

Source: "Overstay Tracking: A Key Component of Homeland Security and a Layered Defense," as published by the United States Government Accountability Office.

About the Author: The United States Government Accountability Office is the investigative arm of congress that examines government efficiency by evaluating federal programs, auditing federal expenditures, and issuing legal opinions. Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, in-depth investigations probed the individuals that articulated the attacks. Soon investigators, and the American public, learned that thirteen of the fifteen hijackers were not interviewed before receiving visas to enter the United States and that their paperwork was not completed properly. This information, along with desires to prevent another terrorist attack, lead to several U.S. programs to track, restrict, and more closely monitor visa holders and new entrants to the United States.


Post-September 11 visa restrictions reflect U.S. and international attitudes on terrorism. The Governmental Accounting Office (GAO), the FBI, the Office of Homeland Security, and other federally headed agencies all agree that consulates issuing U.S. visas still have a wide range of options for denying an individual a visa into the United States. With mandated tracking software, mandatory interviews, and enforced paperwork, visa applicants will have to show clear evidence of who they are, their intentions for stay in the United States, and of any past activities that may be deemed a threat to U.S. national security. Alongside interviews, applicants will also be required to submit their fingerprints. These can then be entered into a database to compare and track them against fingerprints of known and suspected terrorists and other non-desirables. These tightened restrictions directly reflect the information received on the nineteen hijackers from the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The nineteen hijackers received a total of twenty-three visas from five different U.S. consulates between April 1997 and June 2001, despite the fact that thirteen of the hijackers were never interviewed by U.S. officials and fifteen of them had not filled out their paperwork correctly. Their incorrect paperwork ranged from missing signatures, current and past addresses, place of departure, point of arrival, and various other mistakes. The applicants that did not have to submit to interviews were those from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Finally, two hijackers obtained third-party national visas from Berlin, Germany. Third-party national visas are those given to individuals holding residency (but not citizenship) in a nation other than their own, and often these visa holders are students. The two hijackers who received third-party visas from Germany were deemed acceptable entrants to the United States—those who would not stay illegally—because their studies in Germany showed them to be strong visa candidates.

The hijackers received their visas without interviews and extensive background checks because, prior to September 11, 2001, many U.S. consulates and the U.S. State Department were working under a philosophy to promote U.S. travel by expediting visas. Members of Congress also pushed for expedited visas as a means for expanding U.S. travel and to show good foreign relations to citizens of many countries—particularly those of the Middle East. Middle Eastern and Asian countries frequently received priority in visas because political maneuverings for trade initiatives could be increased if the United States showed friendly relations towards a nation's citizens. This tactic has been taken at various points in U.S. history; one example being the immigration and naturalization laws from the early twentieth century. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) established the Gentleman's Agreement with Japan so that U.S.-Japanese relations would benefit in trade and other economic avenues when Japanese citizens were allowed to obtain visas into the United States.

Just as the Gentleman's Agreement was later rescinded, angering Japan, in an era of post-September 11, the United States has rescinded many of its earlier visa granting policies. Tracking software, interviews, and governmental organizations aimed at monitoring visa holders have become more closely scrutinized in order to prevent future terrorist attacks. This intense monitoring of visa holders is also aimed at limiting those who overstay their visa, those who obtain one for illegal reasons, and to prevent double applicants.


Weaknesses in overstay tracking may encourage visitors and potential terrorists who legally enter the United States to overstay. Once here, terrorists may overstay or use other stratagems to extend their stay—such as exiting and reentering (to obtain a new authorized period of admission) or applying for a change of status. . . . Of the six hijackers who actually flew the planes on September 11 or were apparent leaders, three were out of status on or before September 11—two because of prior short-term overstaying.

Note: An overstay is an illegal alien who was legally admitted to the United States for a specific authorized period, but remained here after that period expired, without obtaining an extension or a change of status or meeting other specific conditions. Overstays who settle here are part of the illegal immigrant population.

Additionally, a number of current or prior overstays were arrested after September 11 on charges related to terrorism. For example:

  • Two overstays pled guilty to separate instances of identity document fraud and were connected to different hijackers in the September 11 group. They were current, short-term overstays when the identity document fraud occurred.
  • Four others with a history of overstaying (and variously connected to the September 11 hijackers, the Taliban, and Hezbollah terrorists) pled guilty to document fraud or weapons charges or were convicted of money laundering. One of these was also convicted of providing Hezbollah material support, including night vision devices and other weapons-related technology.

Last, the gunman who fired on several people at the El Al ticket counter of Los Angeles International Airport was identified (by DHS) as a prior overstay.

Terrorists who enter as legal visitors are hidden within the much larger populations of all legal visitors, overstays, and other illegals such as border crossers. Improved over-stay tracking could help counterterrorism investigators and prosecutors locate suspicious individuals placed on watch lists after they entered the country. The director of the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force told us that he considered overstay tracking data helpful. For example, these data—together with additional analysis—can be important in quickly and efficiently determining whether suspected terrorists were in the United States at specific times.

As we reported in 2003, between "September 11 and November 9, 2001 [that is, over the course of 2 months], . . . INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] compiled a list of aliens whose characteristics were similar to those of the hijackers" in types of visas, countries issuing their passports, and dates of entry into the United States. While the list of aliens was part of an effort to identify and locate specific persons for interviews, it contained duplicate names and data entry errors. In other words, poor data hampered the government's efforts to obtain information in the wake of a national emergency, and it was necessary to turn to private sector information. Reporting earlier that INS data "could not be fully relied on to locate many aliens who were of interest to the United States," we had indicated that the Form I-94 system is relevant, stressing the need for improved change-of-address notification requirements. INS generally concurred with our recommendations.

DHS has declared that combating fraudulent employment at critical infrastructures, such as airports, is a priority for domestic security. DHS has ongoing efforts to identify illegal workers in jobs at various infrastructures (for example, airport workers with security badges). These sweeps are thought to reduce the nation's vulnerability to terrorism, because, as experts have told us, (1) security badges issued on the basis of fraudulent IDs constitute security breaches, and (2) overstays and other illegal aliens working in such facilities might be hesitant to report suspicious activities for fear of drawing authorities' attention to themselves or they might be vulnerable to compromise.

Operation Tarmac is a national multiagency initiative focused on screening employees working in secure areas of U.S. airports. Post-September 11 investigations of passenger-screening companies and other secure-area employers revealed substantial numbers of unauthorized foreign national employees. As a result, further sweeps began in 2001 with Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City (in preparation for the Winter Olympics); these eventually became known as Operation Tarmac and are still ongoing. As of April 2004, DHS reported that 195 airports had been investigated and 5,877 businesses had been audited. Operation Tarmac investigators had checked the I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification forms or badging office records (or both) for about 385,000 employees and had found 4,918 unauthorized workers.


Opponents to the enhanced visa tracking programs state that flaws in the tracking software can possibly prevent viable entrants from entering the United States, as well as still enabling potential terrorists to obtain U.S. visas. These concerns have been corroborated by the GAO and the U.S. State Department. Both agencies have admitted that biographical information on the hijackers in the Consular Lookout and Support System (CLASS) was incorrect: one hijacker's name was misspelled and another's birth date was wrong. CLASS contains information on individuals who are not eligible to obtain visas and passports into the United States.

The GAO and U.S. State Department consider the fear that visa tracking still has too many flaws and that it will inhibit U.S. travel and tourism as a viable concern. Federal agencies governing visa tracking continually state that they are open to suggestions on how to improve the system, alleviate concerns about curbing U.S. tourism, and prevent individuals of national threat from entering the country. However, they assert that the U.S. government must accept responsibility for individuals who slip through the system, overstay their visas, violate its terms, and use falsified documents to enter the country. Thus, federal departments are continually revising visa terms, applications, and the generalized process in order to strengthen it and make it as user-friendly as possible.


Web sites

CNN.com."US-VISIT Falls Short." <http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/03/28/visit.program/index.html> (accessed 6 July 2005).

CNN.com. "Eying Your ID." <http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/05/03/eying.identification/index.html> (accessed 6 July 2005).