Atta May Have Obtained Conch Republic Passport
by Jennifer Babson
The Miami Herald
October 3, 2001
KEY WEST, Fla. _ They are touted as being tongue-in-cheek but look authentic: Navy blue and red "passports" embossed with a "Conch Republic" crest _ complete with photo, blank official-looking pages for immigration stamps, personal identification information, and expiration dates.
Now federal investigators are trying to find out whether Mohamed Atta, one of the men believed to be a key player in last month's terrorist attacks, added one of these novelties to his collection of travel documents.
After discovering that a man named Mohamed Atta applied for and likely received one of the passports in September 2000, FBI agents are now combing through thousands of pages of supporting material provided by a Key West, Fla., group that issues the passports. One of the things troubling federal investigators: Anderson says he has used his Conch Republic passport to enter the United States five times, and enter Caribbean countries multiple times.
Investigators still aren't sure, however, if the Mohamed Atta who applied for the fake passport is the same man believed to have piloted the first plane that slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
They have yet to locate supporting materials Atta would have had to provide _ including an affidavit that includes address, telephone number, and email _ among the reams of documents taken from Peter Anderson, steward of a Keys group that champions the Keys as the "Conch Republic" and that issues its own passports.
"All I know is what we've been told, that we did issue a passport to a Mohamed Atta," Anderson said Tuesday.
FBI agents hauled away boxes of records, but have been unable to find Atta's passport application and his accompanying passport snapshots, a federal investigator said.
Agents did find someone signing the registration book under the name Atta from New York, but cannot say if it was the suicide hijacker.
Agents are sifting through the records to determine if anyone else with a hijacker's name purchased a passport.
The FBI went to Anderson's passport store after agents were notified by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Anderson is the self-proclaimed Secretary General of the Conch Republic _ a bunch of merrymakers who coalesce around a 10-day Keys "independence festival" every April and dub themselves the "World's First Functioning Meritocracy." Anderson's group has issued about 10,000 passports since 1993.
Standard blue passports, often applied for through the mail, retail for between $100 and $109. Red "Diplomat" passports are issued to "dignitaries" _ special friends of the self-proclaimed breakaway band or those willing to pay as much as $1,200 a piece.
Passport applicants are also required to provide a notarized copy of their genuine passport or other official documentation from country of residence, and three photographs.
Last fall, Anderson says the Conch Republic received a sudden flood of mail order applicants, many of them with Arab surnames and from countries such as India, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates.
After the Discovery Channel began regularly replaying a segment that included information on the passport program, "we started receiving a lot of requests from people all over the world and from people who were in the U.S. who we had reason to believe may not have been in the U.S. legally," Anderson said.
It was at that point, Anderson said, that he had a local private investigator and friend, David Burns, contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Burns says he telephoned the INS's enforcement department in Miami to let them know that a "large number" of people who appeared to be foreign nationals were applying for the passports.
"The response was, 'OK, I'll call a supervisor and tell him to get back to you,' " Burns recalled Tuesday. "Nobody ever called me back."
Anderson said that some of the requests were from Florida and some included post office boxes as mailing addresses. Citing "security issues" he declined to elaborate further.
"The Conch Republic is being entirely cooperative with the FBI," Anderson said.
He added that people have used the faux passports to enter more than 30 countries, including the United States. "You get a lot of scrutiny," he said. "We had a 'diplomat' go into Russia with his passport."
A review of Anderson's Conch Republic passports shows what appear to be five red INS stamps, including a May 29, 1998, stamp at Miami International Airport, three from Key West, and a 1994 stamp in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Some of the countries from which Anderson was returning were Caribbean nations that U.S. citizens aren't required to present official passports to visit.
When the INS stamped Anderson's fake passport in 1998 at Miami International Airport instead of his real one, however, he says he was returning from Germany.
Anderson said he couldn't recall whether immigration officials also ran his U.S. passport through their computers upon reentering the country.
"They might have glanced at it, but they didn't stamp it," he said. "It was, 'Welcome home, Mr. Secretary.' I'm in the computer. They know me."
INS spokesman Rodney Germain declined to comment in depth about the situation.
"We are working closely with the FBI in their investigations of these attacks. There's really no specific details that I can go into."
Germain did say that INS does not recognize the Conch Republic passport as an official document: "That is not an official U.S. document. What we can say is that we are not going to accept that as an entry document."
(c) 2001, The Miami Herald.
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