WASHINGTON - The suspected September 11 mastermind received a US visa a few weeks before the attacks despite a 1996 indictment linking him with earlier terrorist plots, but there is no evidence he entered the country, investigators said today.
Members of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States also told a public hearing that several of the September 11 hijackers were known al Qaeda operatives, travelled on doctored passports and made false statements on visa applications which could have been detected.
Previously, US official have said that most of the hijackers came into the United States legally on "clean" travel documents.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected coordinator of the September 11 attacks, managed to exploit the visa system due to the absence of biometric data, such as electronic fingerprint scans, which would have connected him to the indictment despite his use of a false name and nationality, the commission said.
"KSM, as he is known, obtained a visa to visit the United States on July 23, 2001, about six weeks before the 9/11 attacks," said in a written statement by several commission staff members who spearheaded the investigation.
Mohammed took advantage of a third party US visa processing system to submit his application and photo, using a false identity, according to a statement read by commission senior counsel Susan Ginsberg.
Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan nearly a year ago and is in US custody.
The commission members also said "at least two and as many as eight (of the 19 hijackers' passports) showed evidence of fraudulent manipulation" that went undetected.
Several of the men also included among them known al Qaeda operatives who could have been watch-listed, presented passports with "suspicious indicators" of extremism, gave false statements to US border officials and violated immigration laws while in the United States.
"These circumstances offered opportunities to intelligence and law enforcement officials. But our government did not fully exploit al Qaeda's travel vulnerabilities," the statement said.
It quoted FBI director Robert Mueller as testifying that "(e)ach of the hijackers ... came easily and lawfully from abroad" and CIA chief George Tenet as describing 17 of the 19 hijackers as "clean", and said:
"We believe the information we have provided today gives the commission the opportunity to re-evaluate those statements."