Slow Noose Day: ‘Visa Loophole’ Lets Colored Brits into U.S.


When is a ‘loophole’ not really a loophole? In today’s New York Times story about Brits who happen to be of Pakistani origin being allowed into the U.S.

What’s an actual loophole? The opening created by the U.S. government right after 9/11 to let privileged Saudis — including Osama bin Laden‘s relatives — secretly flee the U.S. despite a nationwide air ban.

You might want to think about those fleeing Saudis when you read this morning’s Times story by Jane Perlez. In “U.S. Seeks Closing of Visa Loophole for Britons,” she writes about Omar Khyam, leader of the thwarted London bomb plot, who just got sentenced to prison:

The 25-year-old Mr. Khyam, a Briton of Pakistani descent, . . . also personifies a larger and more immediate concern: as a British citizen, he could have entered the United States without a visa, like many of an estimated 800,000 other Britons of Pakistani origin.

American officials, citing the number of terror plots in Britain involving Britons with ties to Pakistan, expressed concern over the visa loophole. In recent months, the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, has opened talks with the government here on how to curb the access of British citizens of Pakistani origin to the United States.

As Slate‘s Daniel Politi alertly points out:

Officials say they are concerned that many of the terror plots uncovered recently involve Britons who have ties to Pakistan, and just like any British citizen they could enter the United States without a visa. For some reason the paper decides to refer to this, in the story and headline, as a “visa loophole.”

Politi’s right. It’s not a loophole. It’s only a loophole if the intent of the U.S.’s open policy toward Brits is to let in only white Brits. As far as I can tell, only the Times and its sister paper the Boston Globe (“Officials seek to close visa loophole” was the Globe‘s headline on Perlez’s article) were calling this a “loophole” as of late this morning.

You think I’m picking nits? My late journalism guru John Bremner used to preach, “Words convey ideas.” And “visa loophole” in this case is casually (though no doubt unintentionally) racist. Look up “loophole.” My OED says the word is “often applied to an ambiguity or omission in a statute, etc., which affords opportunity for evading its intention.”

I guess those Brits of Pakistani descent currently get into the U.S. only because of a “visa loophole.” Oh, brother.

Perlez quotes an “expert on terrorism and Pakistan” named Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, on Khyam’s being “the classic U.K.-Pakistani connection that Al Qaeda has focused on since 9/11.” She must have seen Riedel’s “Al Qaeda Strikes Back” in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs.

In his own piece, Riedel zooms in on Pakistan and Pakistanis:

Al Qaeda’s relocation to Pakistan has also provided new opportunities for the group to expand its reach in the West, especially the United Kingdom. Thanks to connections to the Pakistani diaspora, visitors from Pakistan have relatively easy access to the Pakistani community in the United Kingdom, and Pakistani-born Britons can readily travel to Pakistan and back — facilitating recruitment, training, and communications for jihadists. (By one estimate, Pakistan received 400,000 visits from British residents in 2004.)

The large communities of immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh living in the United Kingdom — and some disaffected Muslim British citizens — have become targets for recruitment. With entry into the United States made more difficult because of U.S. homeland security measures, the United Kingdom has become a focal point of al Qaeda’s activities in the West.

But Riedel is smart enough not to use the absurd characterization of a “visa loophole” — the kind of wordplay that can stoke hysteria against innocent people who happen to be the wrong color. Here’s how Riedel writes about it:

Al Qaeda’s growing connections to Europe have made the United States more vulnerable, too. If it had not been foiled, the plot last August to destroy ten commercial airliners en route from the United Kingdom to the United States — which has been tied back to the Pakistani-British network and was probably timed to coincide with the sixth anniversary of 9/11 — would have been devastating. Last January, John Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence, said that the operation was the most ambitious attempt to slaughter innocents since 9/11. He told the Senate that al Qaeda’s core elements “continue to plot attacks against our homeland and other targets, with the objective of inflicting mass casualties. And they are cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders’ secure hideout in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.”

No, the Times on its own came up with this “loophole” nonsense.

Which brings us to the fleeing Saudis. On September 30, 2001, the Times reported:

In the first days after the terror attacks on New York and Washington, Saudi Arabia supervised the urgent evacuation of 24 members of Osama bin Laden’s extended family from the United States, fearing that they might be subjected to violence.

In his first interview since the attacks, Saudi Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan also said that private planes carrying the kingdom’s deputy defense minister and the governor of Mecca, both members of the royal family, were grounded and initially caught up in the F.B.I. dragnet. Both planes, one jumbo jet carrying 100 family members, and the other 40, were eventually allowed to leave when airports reopened and passports were checked.

Not exactly. The Saudis were allowed to fly out of the U.S. during the nationwide ban on air traffic, as only Kathy Steele of the Tampa Tribune reported on October 5, 2001. Paul Thompson‘s excellent and fully annotated 9/11 Timeline notes that Steele’s scoop, “Phantom Flight From Florida,” was denied by U.S. officials and was thought by some to be an urban legend.

In fall 2003, Vanity Fair‘s Craig Unger went beyond Steele’s scoop, putting in full context the loophole that allowed the Saudis to leave:

The repatriation of the Saudis is far more than just a case of wealthy Arabs being granted special status by the White House under extraordinary conditions. For one thing, in the two years since September 11, a number of highly placed Saudis, including both bin Ladens and members of the royal family, have come under fire for their alleged roles in financing terrorism. Four thousand relatives of the victims of 9/11 have filed a $1 trillion civil suit in Washington, D.C., charging the House of Saud, the bin Ladens, and hundreds of others with wrongful death, conspiracy, and racketeering for having contributed tens of millions of dollars to charities that were al-Qaeda fronts.

Newsweek has reported that Prince Bandar’s wife, perhaps unwittingly, sent thousands of dollars to charities that ended up funding the hijackers. In addition, F.B.I. documents marked “Secret” indicate that two members of the bin Laden family, which has repeatedly distanced itself from Osama bin Laden, were under investigation by the bureau for suspected associations with an Islamic charity designated as a terrorist support group.

Remember the Bush regime’s desperate attempt to keep those flights secret? Unger wrote:

Most recently, in July [2003], the administration asked Congress to withhold 28 pages of its official report on 9/11. According to news reports, the classified section charges that there were ties between the hijackers and two Saudis, Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Brassnan, who had financial relationships with members of the Saudi government. Saudi officials deny that their government was in any way linked to the attacks. The Saudis have asked that the pages be declassified so they can refute them, but President Bush has refused.

Terrorism experts say that the Saudis who were in the U.S. immediately after the attacks might have been able to shed light on the structure of al-Qaeda and to provide valuable leads for investigating 9/11. And yet, according to sources who participated in the repatriation, they left the U.S. without even being interviewed by the F.B.I.

Officially, the White House declined to comment, and a source inside asserted that the flights never took place. However, former high-level Bush-administration officials have told Vanity Fair otherwise.

Finally, Unger asked this important question:

How was it possible that, just as President Bush declared a no-holds-barred global war on terror that would send hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and just as Osama bin Laden became Public Enemy No. 1 and the target of a worldwide manhunt, the White House would expedite the departure of so many potential witnesses, including two dozen relatives of the man behind the attack itself?

Tim Russert asked Colin Powell about that on the September 7, 2003, Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: The cover of Time magazine tomorrow, headlined, The Saudis: Whose Side Are They On in the War on Terror? — in this release from Vanity Fair magazine, “Former White House counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke tells Vanity Fair that the Bush administration decided to allow a group of Saudis to fly out of the U.S. just after September 11 — at a time when access to U.S. airspace was still restricted and required special government approval. According to other sources at least four flights with about 140 Saudis, including roughly two dozen members of the bin Laden family, flew to Saudi Arabia that week — without even being interviewed or interrogated by the F.B.I.”

Why was that allowed?

SEC’Y POWELL: Well, I don’t know that that’s accurate. I don’t know the details of what happened. But my understanding is that there was no sneaking out of the country; that the flights were well-known, and it was coordinated within the government. But I don’t have the details about what the FBI’s role in it might or might not have been.

Finally, painfully, the FAA confirmed that the Tampa flight happened. A June 2004 St. Petersburg Times story by Jean Heller probed the details and concluded with this:

Most of the aircraft allowed to fly in U.S. airspace on Sept. 13 [2001] were empty airliners being ferried from the airports where they made quick landings on Sept. 11. The reopening of the airspace included paid charter flights, but not private, nonrevenue flights.

“Whether such a [LearJet] flight would have been legal hinges on whether somebody paid for it,” said FAA spokesman William Shumann. “That’s the key.”

See now, that’s a loophole.