A few days ago

A few days ago I did a radio interview where I went head to head with another one of these ridiculous conservatives who — when thrown on the defensive about some aspect of Bush administration policy — immediately launches into a tirade about how Bill Clinton is actually responsible for virtually everything that happened on September 11th.

(Did you know that Bill Clinton was actually the barber for three of the 9/11 terrorists!?!!? Or that he vetoed a bill which would have made it a felony to fly commercial jets into tall buildings??!?!!?)

In this particular case, the guy went on a tear about the Sudan-bin Laden handover fiasco, but he clearly didn’t understand some pretty elementary details about what had happened.

In any case, clearly, by definition, we were not as prepared as we should have been for September 11th. And there’s plenty of blame to go around. But one of the true ironies of the relationship between Clinton administration responsibility and Bush administration responsibility is this: most of the Clintonite policies which really were screw-ups were precisely those the Bush administration was most intent on continuing.

Here’s an example of that pattern — one which I’m surprised to say seems to have gotten quite little attention. It’s described in an article in the Washington Monthly by Nick Confessore, a former colleague of mine from the American Prospect. (Actually, he’s only ‘former’ because I’m not there anymore. He’s still at the Prospect. But don’t hold that against him. He’s first-rate.)

Anyway, the article … We all know the pitiful story about how the INS sent out visa approval notifications to two of the 9/11 hijackers almost six months after their planes plowed into the Twin Towers. This choice anecdote shined a bright light on how easy it apparently is for potential terrorists to slip into the country under the cover of student visas. Of course, sometimes they really are students, here to upgrade their jobs skills as international terrorists — sort of Robert Reich meets Osama bin Laden. But that’s another matter.

In any case, since then — as the New York Times reported a couple weeks back — the INS has been working to hurry along the new-fangled student visa tracking program — SEVIS — to make sure this sort of screw up never happens again.

But it turns out that there’s a back story here that gives you a sobering sense of just how tough a battle the war on terrorism in Washington is going to be. SEVIS is actually just a ridiculously dumbed-down version of someting called CIPRIS, a pretty high-powered tracking system that the Clinton administration developed starting in the mid-1990s and ran in a pilot program in the Southeast a couple years ago.

CIPRIS was the sort of program you’d want if you were serious about keeping close tabs on whether foreign students were really in school, or out committing crimes, or kickin’ it with the local al Qaida ward leader, or just hanging out in their boxers eating Fritos and watching the Flinstones at two in the afternoon. CIPRIS got a lot of info, had a more or less forgery-proof ID and efficiently and continually cross-checked this info with the relevant databases at Treasury, FBI, CIA and so forth so you’d have a good sense of whether their names or their funding sources were showing up on this or that watch-list.

The INS field-tested it and it worked great.

But it ran afoul of a series of organized interest groups: the immigration lobby and the Washington lobby for university employees who work as advisors to foreign students (yes, believe it or not …) Anyway, through the standard Washington strategems of turning out effective bureaucrats and screwing around with funding these characters managed to get the system gutted and replaced with SEVIS, which did little more than put the existing info onto a computer without cross-referencing it with any other government databases. Basically SEVIS was a high-end, high-tech, New Economy, 21st Century, yada yada yada way of accomplishing nothing, which was more or less — as the article explains — what the interest groups who killed CIPRIS wanted.

Now, fast-forward to the Bush years. Some key folks involved in killing CIPRIS weren’t run out of town on a rail. They got key appointments at INS under Bush. And the administration also helped keep CIPRIS on ice in an effort to cater to the Hispanic voters President Bush and Karl Rove are trying to lure into the Republican party. What’s more, libertarian-minded Bush appointees at the INS are still blocking CIPRIS even after all that’s happened. They’re still there. And they’re still pushing the lametonian SEVIS program even though the better CIPRIS program is waiting right there on the shelf waiting to be used.

The aforementioned article in the Times doesn’t even mention the SEVIS-CIPRIS back story and it’s not clear the author of the piece was even aware of it.

Definitely take a look at the story. It’s a key piece of the ‘what we could have done but didn’t and still aren’t’ debate and it deserves more attention.