How embarrassing it was to learn about the 93-page Standard Operating Procedures manual inadvertently released by the Transportation Security Administration last spring—a leak confirmed by the agency on Tuesday.
No, it’s not embarrassing because the document reveals the appearance of CIA, congressional, and law-enforcement credentials. Or because it indicates that only 20 percent of checked bags are given what’s called a “full open bag search.” Or even that disabled individuals’ wheelchairs and footwear, casts and orthopedic shoes are potentially exempt from explosives screening.
None of that drives my outrage.
The most alarming part of the TSA document story isn’t its unfortunate release. It’s the vulnerability it reveals.
Rather, it’s what’s absent from this list: Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, and Algeria. Holders of passports from those nations, the TSA document outlines, are to be the subject of additional screening.
What's missing from the list? Saudi Arabia.
You know, the home of 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11, 2001.
It would have been 16 out of 20, but for the work of Jose Melendez-Perez, the astute immigration inspector who prevented the presumed 20th 9/11 hijacker, Mohamed al-Kahtani, from gaining entry into the United States one month before the attacks.
Melendez-Perez’s story bears repeating. On August 4, 2001, Kahtani, a Saudi, was assigned to secondary screening because he had not completed the necessary Customs paperwork upon arrival at Orlando International Airport.
Melendez-Perez would later tell the 9/11 Commission that upon eyeballing Kahtani, the wannabe terrorist "gave me the creeps.” Remember, this was pre-9/11. Melendez-Perez wasn’t thinking Osama bin Laden. He was unfamiliar with alcQaeda. He was just applying his street smarts to his job, and decided that something about Kahtani sounded an internal alarm. After a 90-minute interrogation in which Kahtani pointed his finger in Melendez-Perez’s face, shifted his story, and refused to answer questions under oath, the veteran INS inspector decided to send his visitor packing.
His skepticism would soon be vindicated. The 9/11 Commission later declared that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta was at the Orlando International to meet Kahtani, whom the FBI later determined would have been on United Flight 93—the only hijacked plane with four terrorists on board, not five.
Here’s what bears relation to the TSA report: While Melendez-Perez was deciding whether to accept or reject Kahtani, a co-worker offered some words of advice. He told Melendez-Perez that he should consider letting the man enter the U.S. because of the clout Saudis hold in the U.S. government. As Melendez-Perez later testified before the 9/11 Commission: “Saudi nationals were held to the same legal standards as everyone else. However, service-wide they were treated with more ‘tact.’ For example, in order to accommodate the Saudi culture, female Saudis unwilling to unveil were inspected by female inspectors, if available. This remains the case today.”
And as he would tell me later in an interview: “Many of the Saudis, the rich and famous, traveled with maids, drivers, and valets, and their documents were not so much of a worry. They were intimidating to many in the INS because if you delayed them, it could generate a congressional complaint. Many were very reluctant to offend the Saudis.”
Sadly, that clout has been maintained throughout the eight-plus years since 9/11. I’m picturing George W. Bush holding hands with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in 2005. Or President Obama bowing to King Abdullah earlier this year.
As Michael Scheuer, the former head of the Alec Station (the CIA unit tasked with tracking bin Laden) and author of Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq, told me in an email: “The Saudis own us.” They buy up American debt, control OPEC, engage American arms manufacturers and oil companies, employ “innumerable” former U.S. diplomats and officers, and maintain a powerful Washington lobby, Scheuer said.
He continued: “We’re so much in their thrall that State has a special block of visas for Saudi students. I think there are 10,000 of the visas and most of the students who get them are in the medical, computer, and hard sciences. It is suicidal.”
Lest the security threat be considered a minimal one, consider Scheuer’s warning that the federal government “knows without question that al Qaeda and its allies pore over the U.S. media for operationally applicable information.” There is, he told me, “no chance” that the TSA manual went unnoticed by those who still wish to do America harm. “Everything that appeared on the Internet must be considered compromised and must be replaced,” Scheuer said. “The compromised material, however, will continue to be used until replacements are ready and TSA officers are trained to use them.”
Indeed, the most alarming part of the TSA document story isn’t its unfortunate release. It’s the vulnerability it reveals.
Michael Smerconish is a nationally syndicated radio host. His latest book, Instinct: The Man Who Stopped the 20th Hijacker, was published in September.