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:
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:
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:
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:
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 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:
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:
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:
Tim Russert asked Colin Powell about that on the September 7, 2003, Meet the Press:
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:
“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.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 2, 2007