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San Antonio Express News’ Todd Bensman talks about special interest aliens, illegal entrants into the U.S. with jihadist backgrounds.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007
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HH: Listen up, a very important segment. You know I pound on newspapers a lot, especially my favorite, Los Angeles Times. It’s fun to beat them up. But I give credit where credit is due, and my guest, Todd Bensman, has written an amazing four-part series for the San Antonio Express News, a lot of the excerpts of which I read to you in the first forty minutes of last hour. Todd Bensman joins me now from San Antonio. Todd, good to talk to you. Thanks for joining us.

TB: Thanks for having me on.

HH: This is a pretty remarkable series, and I wanted to dig into how it originated, and how long you spent on it. But we want to start a little bit. Tell us about Todd Bensman. How long have you been in the newspaper business?

TB: Oh, I’ve been doing this for twenty years. I spent a little bit of time in television, but most all of it’s been in newspapers, from Arizona to Alaska, to Dallas, and now San Antonio.

HH: How did it, how long have you been in San Antonio?

TB: Well, I’ve been at the Express News for about one year. I just celebrated my one year anniversary. Before that, I’d been up in Dallas, working for the Dallas Morning News, and also for the CBS station there, KTDT as an investigative producer.

HH: Now how in the world did you get a newspaper, when you’re about three days in the door, persuaded to spend the kind of money which this series must have cost, given where you reported, and how extensively you reported?

TB: Well, you know, I was hired as a projects reporter, and you know, these days, newspapers are cutting back on investments in long term investigative work. But the San Antonio Express News happens to belong to Hearst Corporation, which is a private corporation, and so they’ve maintained a lot of investment in their projects team, and I was hired to join the projects team. My background in the last five years has been in counterterrorism, terrorism related topics for the Dallas Morning News, and lots of other publications as well. But I knew that when I transferred to San Antonio, which is we cover the Texas border, that that’s where the story was going to be, and I hadn’t really been too interested in border issues when I was further from it. And so I thought well, I started reading the text of all of the major legislation that has been passed related to border security, that the actual text, what the law says…

HH: Yeah, I did that this weekend with the new draft bill. It’s a little bit cumbersome sometimes.

TB: It’s cumbersome, but one thing that I picked up right away was that while the country was debating and fighting over Mexican laborers, the text of the bill, and the debate about the bill was only about one thing, and that was terrorist infiltration. Even the name of one of the biggest pieces of legislation, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, reflects what really the priority was behind these bills. So as a journalist, I thought well, near the border, I thought well, what are they talking about, terrorist infiltration? How come nobody’s tested this? How come nobody’s scrutinized this issue of terrorist infiltration? What are they talking about all through these major pieces of legislation? And what it turned out to be that everyone was talking about is Islamic migrants who are able to cross the border, and where they’re coming from, which are countries in parts of South Asia, Africa, and especially the Middle East, where terrorist organizations operate. And so I decided to just dig in and go for it, and the paper supported me.

HH: Now…Todd Bensman is who I’m talking with, the reporter for the San Antonio Express News whose four-part series on aliens of special interest from countries of special interest, meaning countries with jihadist networks, is an eye-opener. I insist, if you’re going to listen to this show, you’ve got to read it. Lawrence Wright’s probably already got his teeth into it, down from the New Yorker, since it’s got Looming Tower written all over it. Any reaction thus far, Todd Bensman, to the pieces that have been running the San Antonio Express News?

TB: Actually, it’s been building pretty gradually. The first several days have had very little comment, a few positive remarks, but for the most part, I think it’s sort of still being digested, so to speak. And I was on the Bill O’Reilly show, I did a taping today, and that’s really the first sort of interest beyond my region here that I’ve gotten.

HH: Well, I had a San Antonio listener, I’m on from, I’m tape-delayed down there. I guess it’s from 8-11PM, who sent me a link to it, and as soon as it came in, he sent me all four pieces. I sat down and started reading the thing. It’s engrossing. It’s also very scary. Did you find what you thought you would find?

TB: Well, I did, and a lot more. You know, I traveled, I did a lot of traveling for this story. I went to Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico, mainly the border there. I traveled to Damascus, Syria, and Amman, Jordan. And I traveled a little bit in the United States, mainly Michigan, which has a large population of immigrants.

HH: In Dearborn, Arab immigrants, sure, yup.

TB: Right. I think probably, one of the more interesting findings was that the Mexican government, which I think the conventional wisdom on the Mexican government is that you know, they’re for open borders, they want to keep the borders open, and they’re not a very cooperative partner. But what I found was quite the contrary. There is one group of migrants that they very, very steadfastly pursue with some success, and that is special interest migrants from the Middle East. They catch them…

HH: I read those excerpts last hour, because…and their rationale, which I think is quite obvious on its face, that if we get hit by a terrorist who crossed our border from Mexico, that will be the end of that border being open.

TB: Well, that’s what Mexico’s new ambassador told me in an interview a couple of months ago, when I asked him about special interest aliens, which is a bureaucratic term with which he was immediately familiar. He was very intimately familiar with that term, and everything about them, which tells you something right there. And he acknowledged that if one of these guys is a bad guy and gets through, there’s going to be a problem. They’re going to shut down that border, and there’s going to be a disruption in the $25 billion dollars worth of remittances that go back, and that is their primary national interest.

HH: Todd Bensman, in the course of investigating this, did anyone raise the possibility that with the right kind of weapon, primarily a dirty bomb, radiological, they don’t even need to get across the border. They’ve just got to drive up to Tijuana, right next to the fence, which I’ve driven on both sides of many times on missions to an orphanage there in Tijuana, and set it off. It will contaminate San Diego. Is there any evidence of a counterterrorism awareness near their border that they’ve got to be concerned about that sort of an attack?

TB: There are surprisingly in depth joint counterterrorism programs between the Mexicans and the Americans that are extensive and very comprehensive all along that border for that purpose. One of things that…another kind of surprise, I don’t want to be alarmist, and I didn’t set out for my stories to be viewed in any way as anything other than sober.

HH: No, that’s the word. They’re not alarmist. They’re very sober.

TB: And one of the things that I found is that the current border crackdown that we’ve seen, and this is without the wall. Just with what the Bush administration has done with the National Guard, and tripling the Border Patrol, et cetera, has had a profound effect already in distant places like Syria and Amman, where I interviewed many refugees are contemplating hiring smugglers to get out of there. And what I’m hearing is you know, we don’t want to go to the U.S. because of the Bush crackdown.

HH: Oh, so market disruption. How interesting.

TB: And I also found the same thing in Guatemala.

HH: Has the price gone up, Todd, because when the price goes up, you know that there’s some disruption going on.

TB: The price has gone sky high for a trip to America.

HH: What is it now?

TB: Well, it ranges between, I think before the crackdown really got underway in earnest, let’s say from a place like Damascus, Syria, which is incidentally a designated state sponsor of terror…

HH: Right.

TB: …and harbors known terrorist organizations, and our government considers them bad guys, costs about maybe $8,000 dollars. $7-8,000 dollars, you could pretty easily get on over the Texas border, or the California border.

HH: And now?

TB: Now, you know, I’m hearing prices like $20, $25 and $30,000.

– – – –

HH: He is the author of a four-part series which I’ve linked at Hughhewitt.com in a couple of places, pulled a few paragraphs out of that. I hope the San Antonio Express News doesn’t sue me, Todd.

TB: I think we’re good.

HH: We’re good, thank you. I didn’t take too much, because there’s way too much to try. I just wanted to tease this. His series is on the special alien flow from the Middle East, and other jihadist countries with jihadist networks into the United States, and to kick off this segment, and we’ll take your calls, by the way, 1-800-520-1234, I want to read to you the key paragraph. It’s in the second part. According to U.S. Custom and Border Protection apprehension numbers, agents along both borders have caught more than 5,700 special interest immigrants since 2001, but as many as 20,000-60,000 others have presumed to have slipped through, based on rule of thumb estimates typically used by Homeland Security agencies. That’s a lot of special interest aliens, Todd. What…when you get these Border Patrol guys and law enforcement guys to go off the record, what percentage of them do they worry about?

TB: Well, you know, to start out with, the total number of special interest aliens is a very tiny fraction of non-Mexican migrants that are coming through, and an even tinier fraction, just to put things in perspective, an even tinier fraction of the total number of all that are coming over and getting caught.

HH: Sure.

TB: But I think what counterterror, national security experts worry about most is that there really are just a…all it takes is just one or two. That’s what I always hear. It only takes one. It only took 19 hijackers. It only took a couple…that’s pretty much, that’s their viewpoint out there in the field, so I think that even though they’re very small in number, they’re considered to be a very high risk group of aliens.

HH: Do you know what percentage of the 5,700 were caught on the Southern Border, and what were caught on the Canadian or ports of entry borders?

TB: Yeah, that actually was a little bit of a surprise to me. It’s about 50-50, 50% caught on the Northern border, and 50% caught on the Southern border. But I would note that one thing that I discovered in my reporting was that the way that special interest…one way that a lot of special interest migrants have entered the Northern border is through South America first. So they’ll arrive to South America, Latin America, Central America, and then fly over he United States, into Canada, and then take advantage of that border. But one thing, the most common thing I find is a Latin America connection. They love to come through Latin America, because the countries are corrupt, the borders are porous, it’s easy to get in, it’s easy to get out, and it’s attractive and appealing on a lot of different fronts.

HH: You discuss at length the operation of the Guatemala Consulate in Amman, Jordan. Does our government exert pressure, to your knowledge, Todd Bensman of the San Antonio Express News, to stop this loose issuance of visas, clearly intended to bring people not to Guatemala, but to the United States? I mean, there’s no reason for an Iraqi refugee to go to Guatemala, is there? Although you mention that there’s a large Palestinian ex-pat population there, which surprised me.

TB: Yeah, really, most people don’t go to Guatemala as a destination country. It’s a pretty poor, it’s a pretty poor country, its economy is not very absorbent. So I mean, yeah, I think there are some, maybe about 3,000 in Guatemala, but most of them are moving through.

HH: How did you find your interpreters for this process?

TB: I found my interpreter in Guatemala through the Associated Press office down there, and we’re members, so…

HH: And in Syria?

TB: And in Syria, I was able to draw on a network of former fellows of an international fellowship I did a few years back, and a lot of those folks have done reporting in Syria, so I was able to get a good reference.

HH: Now when you were in Syria, did the government allow you to move around freely writing this story? Or were you under surveillance by the secret police who are pretty omnipresent in Syria?

TB: Yeah, I was pulled over twice by the Mukhabarat, secret police, and we were given a government minder for a lot of the reporting, and really had to do some delicate negotiations to shake that minder. But eventually, we were able to shake the minder, but we still had to have papers, very tough places to report freely. And of course, I never fully divulged what I was working on. I sort of gave, I omitted certain things.

HH: How long were you in Syria until you could make contracts with bulls, or any of the other would-be smugglers or the smugglees?

TB: Actually, I was in Syria only about ten days. The Iraqi whose path I traced, I actually met him first in Brownsville, Texas, right after he was released at the bus station. So I met him at the very end of his journey, and traced it back to the beginning.

HH: Interesting. So that…so you weren’t there when he was approached by the Syrian to get him the Guatemala passport? You got that from him?

RB: Right. Well, in most of the dialogue, and most of the journey that I traced was done through interviews with him, and wherever possible, other people who were there, in other means of supporting his story, any way I could corroborate it.

HH: Your exchange with the Cuban indicates to us, to me, at least, that we have a real problem there, that they’re not in any hurry to deter special interest aliens from getting to the United States, nor for that matter, is Venezuela.

RB: Well, you’re right, and I think you asked about that earlier. I think the Americans are in a bit of a, they’ve got a bit of a problem there from a counterterrorism perspective, in that there’s very little influence that they can wield or exercise over some of these countries like Venezuela, which is clearly adversarial, and Cuba. And of course, a lot of these countries keep consulates and embassies in countries that have been listed as state sponsors of terror, like Syria. And it was with a certain amount of delight, I’d have to say, that the Cuban consul, the officer who runs the Cuban office there, was quite eager to hand out visas. He told me he was pretty eager…you know, if they wanted to go to the United States, fine. Let them. It’s not our problem. And I think because I live in Texas, he made a reference to the fact that Bush, President Bush was from my state, and he was happy to help bring the problem that Bush caused in Iraq back into Texas.

HH: Yeah, it’s such an eye-opener.

– – – –

HH: What day did it begin running on, Todd?

TB: It started Sunday, and it will finish tomorrow.

HH: And so it’s…the last part is tomorrow?

TB: Actually, yeah. Part four is tomorrow, and then there’ll be yet a part five on Sunday.

HH: You see, it seems to me that the…I got sent four different…they must have chopped part three into two parts, is what happened, then, because I’ve got four parts in my hand. But that must be different. Are you going to continue to report this story in some other fashion?

TB: I will. I already have another story that’s on the drawing boards.

HH: One e-mailer, have you heard of the Orantes injunction?

TB: Which one?

HH: The Orantes injunction. It’s about how other than Mexicans are not allowed to be returned to Mexico.

TB: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’ve read about that.

HH: Okay, but it’s not part of your reporting thus far.

TB: No.

HH: Why do you suppose…I mean, I think you’re the first to have done this story, Todd. And people have been speculating about it, and writing about it for, from a pundit’s perspective. But on the ground reporting, was there any before your series?

TB: No, there was not, not that I…well actually, I take that back. In mid-2005, the Associated Press did a very impressive investigative piece, three pieces on this very topic. The problem is that nobody ran it.

HH: Nobody ran it?

TB: Nobody ran it.

HH: Why would that be?

TB: I don’t know. I checked, there was one newspaper in Texas, you know, and Texas being a border state, that ran part of one of the three in an inside page. But beyond that, I couldn’t find, I couldn’t find that anybody ran it.

HH: Now my theory on part of the problem, I’ll just run it past you, is you’re familiar with Teeth of the Tiger, the novel by Tom Clancy?

TB: I’ve heard of it.

HH: In it, it has jihadists penetrating the United States from across the Mexican border. I think part of the reluctance is to credit the idea that a novelist could have actually been working off of a real scenario.

TB: (laughing) I don’t know.

HH: Who’s the baddest actor that has been caught coming over the Mexican border since 9/11?

TB: I’d have to say that most of the bad actors who have come across came across a little bit before 9/11, and a little bit…I think in 2001, we had a guy by the name of al Marab. At the moment, I don’t have his…he’s in one of the…I think he’s in story number one. And he was number 27 on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list, and he snuck over several times, actually, over the Canadian border, connected to the 9/11 hijackers, according to the Canadian intelligence agencies, and also the American government. And I think the Americans ended up deporting him sort of by accident. They didn’t quite realize who they had until it was too late, and now he’s disappeared. But last year, we, the Department of Justice convicted a guy by the name of Mahmoud Khawani(?), who is a high ranking member of Hezbollah, who was sent here by his brother to infiltrate the Mexican border, and set up a cell, fundraising and support and recruiting cell, in Detroit. And he snuck over the Mexican border in the trunk of a car in February, 2001.

HH: That’s before 9/11.

TB: That was before 9/11. Since 9/11, we’ve had a number of Tamil Tigers who are the notorious suicide bombers. I think they perfected the art of suicide bombing. They aren’t particularly anti-American, but their organization is said to be linked to supporting other Muslim terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and you know, they work together, they’re said to work together to…

HH: How many of those have we captured at the border?

TB: I’ve been trying to do a tally of those. I know we had one in Texas, and there have been five, there have been maybe a half dozen in California, and they have their own smuggling ring. And in one of my maps, I don’t know if this one’s online, but in one of the maps…

HH: No, the maps are not online, no.

TB: Yeah, one of my maps, I show the route that they take, how they get in through Sri Lanka.

HH: How many Tamil Tigers do you estimate have gotten here and are here?

TB: You know, it’s really, this is a very difficult area. A lot of that information is kept under deep wraps. It’s classified. CIA gets involved in these things, and it may be a few years before we really know, because what happened after 9/11, the blanket was thrown over everything.

– – – –

HH: Todd, in your series of articles for the San Antonio Express News on the flow of illegals from the Middle East through Central America and Mexico into the United States, and some through Canada, you mentioned that in Mexico City, with the cooperation of Mexico and throughout Mexico, many U.S. agents are interviewing special interest aliens in Mexico. Are those FBI, DEA, CIA, contractors, military, who are those guys?

TB: These are going to be FBI and CIA, mainly, and I think a few ICE agents also conduct these interviews.

HH: And from what you could tell in your report, you note that not every alien of special interest is interviewed, though all are fingerprinted and go into a database, hopefully. But is that because they don’t have enough manpower? Or is that because they feel confident of their screening techniques, between, in their top line analysis, between those they need to interview and those they don’t?

TB: They’re short-handed, they don’t have enough people to interview them. And the agents that I’ve interviewed who are involved in this process tell me that the vetting process, the process that they use to assess the threat, is deeply flawed.

HH: How so?

TB: Well, you know, say a migrant they catch says hey, I’m from Saudi Arabia, but he has no documentation, no papers, what your name, and then they tell you that he gives them some name, and they run it through a watch list, and it comes up clear, there’s just not a whole lot more they can do. No fingerprints, there’s just not a lot they can do, except just let them go, give them back to the Mexicans.

HH: So what happens to that Saudi Arabian nameless wonder? Do they just get released on the streets of Mexico?

TB: Well, actually, there is a pretty good effort made to deport those migrants to their home countries through their embassies in Mexico City.

HH: So it’s not catch and release?

TB: In Mexico, for these guys, no. I’d say for the most part, they try to deport, but I’ve also found quite a few cases of, like Boles, who came in with no documentation, who was just simply released, and told to leave the country sometime over the next two weeks, which he was very happy to do.

HH: Via the Rio Grande into the America, right?

TB: Exactly. One thing…

HH: We’ll read about that tomorrow. I want to…go ahead.

TB: I was just going to make mention of one very interesting document that I found, and have reported in the story of a Pakistani…

HH: Yeah, the Guantanamo Bay guy, yeah.

TB: …who was captured, yeah, he was captured in Mexico, and he ended up in Guantanamo Bay before a military tribunal.

HH: You see, it has to be the case the jihadi networks are trying to get their people into the U.S. over the border. Do you agree with that statement, Todd Bensman?

TB: I really can only go by what I’m told, and what I’m told is that there is intelligence streams, that there are intelligence streams, there is intelligence out there that is consistent over the years since 9/11 that organizations like al Qaeda and some other ones in Egypt have plans to infiltrate the Southern border. That’s what we’re told repeatedly by the top intelligence officials in this country. Not that we haven’t been lied to before, but that’s what they say.

HH: Have plans to, or already have, or both?

TB: Well, what they say is that they have desires to, and plans to. Where these intelligence officials stop is at a point where they can say that for sure somebody has. And at that point, it just becomes black intelligence. It goes into the black hole of intelligence, that nobody is allowed to know. So basically, we just don’t know yet, is what I…

HH: When we find out, it will be too late. Let’s get some calls. Francis in Utah, Francis, welcome to the program. You’re on with Todd Bensman and Hugh Hewitt.

Francis: Hugh, this is, thanks for bringing to light this white elephant in the room, especially in light of what’s going on in Washington. I mean, you know, my understanding, I was the one that sent you the e-mail about the Orantes injunction. You know, there are tens of thousands of MS-13 Salvadoran gangs coming in, and with them, others that plead asylum, and they’re just let go. And I know that they tried to, Bonilla tried to close that loophole, but I don’t know if that’s happened as of yet.

HH: Well, that’s a great topic for a future investigation. Maybe Todd will assign a reporter down there to that, the Orantes injunction. Thank you, Doc. Let’s go to Charlie in Houston on line 2. Hi, Charlie, you’re on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

Charlie: Yes, sir. Congratulations to you for carrying this, especially to Mr. Bensman, and especially to his newspaper. I hope this sort of thing keeps going on. I have, excuse me, I have family ties into Border Patrol on the Southern border. And what Mr. Bensman is saying is exactly what’s coming across. However, what I hear is that it’s, there are more Arabic speaking that are coming across than apparently he may have sensed. As far as the Orantes injunction is concerned, that’s been going on for years. And the OTM’s, the other than Mexicans, are, I haven’t heard all your program, but I assume that it has been commented on that what they do is they take them before a magistrate, they’re given a court date to come back within 12 months or some. The answer, the reason for that is they simply don’t have the space to keep.

HH: Well put, Charlie. Thanks for the call. Todd Bensman…

TB: Yeah.

HH: When you find, when you’re talking to the Arab-American community, are they aware of those illegally in the country in their midst, in the way that, say, the Mexican community and the Mexican-American community know each other quite well in California?

TB: Well, let me just go back to your caller real quick. Your caller is about six months, his information is about six months obsolete. Enough detention bed space has come online now that almost everybody who gets caught, I wouldn’t say everybody, but a far larger percentage than six months ago are being detained now, and processed the proper way. The so-called catch and release is almost obsolete.

HH: Almost over.

– – – –

HH: A couple of close-out questions here, Todd. One, have you heard, since you began reporting on this, from any group like the Council on American Islamic Relations, CAIR?

TB: No.

HH: I’m just curious. Number two, as you go about the country, and you talk with Arab-Americans about this issue, have you heard of whether or not their community is aware of those in the country illegally, and whether they cooperate with authorities or don’t?

TB: Actually, it didn’t really make sense for me to interview or talk to a lot of Arab-Americans, not a lot of them, so I really didn’t delve much into that.

HH: Then where will you be going next, if the paper, and I sure hope it does, I think this is Pulitzer kind of stuff, but that’s just me, I think this is a home run.

TB: Well, thanks.

HH: Where do they send you next? What do you want to work on next when the series is done?

TB: I can’t really divulge that right now. But it’ll be very interesting. Keep your eyes on the San Antonio Express News.

HH: Last question…

TB: There are other exotic aliens who are coming across, illegals who are coming across. Let me put it that way.

HH: Wow. Okay, we will. Make sure we make a date to talk about that. Last question, do you think members of Congress are aware of this issue?

TB: I think that more of the Republican side of the aisle has been aware of this, but they have not, they’ve talked about it, but they’ve been short on facts. Nobody’s really been able to get their arms around anything solid. And so you hear them talk about it, and then you hear the other side of the aisle sort of pooh-pooh it, and there, things just sort of stand. That’s another reason why…

HH: Well, I think your article’s going to get passed around a lot of Senate offices in a hurry, Todd Bensman. Thanks for spending an hour with us, appreciate your hard work. I look forward to reading the next part tomorrow, and future series in the San Antonio Express News.

TB: All right, thank you for having me.

HH: My great pleasure.

End of interview.

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