Screening of Mail at Federal Prisons Lags

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Three terrorists imprisoned in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing were able to send more than 90 letters to alleged terrorists overseas because U.S. prison officials do not screen all correspondence from the most dangerous inmates as required, according to a report released yesterday.

An investigation by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine found that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons does not have enough translators or intelligence analysts to properly screen incoming and outgoing communications, including mail and telephone calls.

The report also said that the proportion of mail monitored has decreased in recent months amid tightening budgets and staff reductions, despite incidents in recent years when incarcerated terrorists were able to communicate with sympathizers overseas. One of the letters was eventually used as a recruiting tool for suicide bombers in Spain, officials said.

"We found that the BOP has not effectively monitored the mail of terrorist and other high-risk inmates," the report said. ". . . Consequently, the threat remains that terrorist and other high-risk inmates can use mail and verbal communications to conduct terrorist or criminal activities while incarcerated."

The prison bureau said in a statement issued yesterday that it agrees with Fine's recommendations for changes but that implementing improvements "will require significant additional resources, primarily staff."

"The most dangerous and sophisticated inmates are housed in the most restrictive conditions allowed in order to ensure that they cannot influence others or use other inmates to send or receive messages," the statement said.

Fine's investigation was requested by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in early 2005, after NBC News reported that scores of letters had been sent overseas by three men convicted in the World Trade Center bombing and housed at the Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary, or Admax, in Florence, Colo. The facility is home to some of the most violent and dangerous prisoners in the federal system, including terrorists, drug lords, gang leaders and others.

Fine's report said more than 90 such letters were sent by inmates Mohammed Salameh, Mahmud Abouhalima and Nidal A. Ayyad between 2002 and 2004. The recipients included Mohamed Achraf, alleged leader of a plot to blow up the National Justice Building in Madrid, and others with links to terrorists suspected in the March 11, 2004, attacks on commuter trains there.

At least 14 letters were exchanged between the Colorado inmates and the Spanish terrorist cell, the report said, and one suspect arrested in Spain used the letters in recruitment efforts. In one letter published by an Arabic newspaper, Salameh wrote: "Osama bin Laden is my hero of this generation."

Fine's investigators found that the prisons bureau "does not have enough proficient translators to translate inmate mail written in foreign languages" and lacks sufficient staff trained to analyze communications for suspicious content. For example, the report said, staff members in Florence failed to notify the FBI about the letters to extremists in Spain because they did not understand the possible ramifications of the correspondence.

The inspector general also found that the problem has worsened: Prison officials read a smaller percentage of mail now than they did a year ago at seven out of 10 facilities surveyed by investigators. During one week in November 2005, the report said, two mailroom staffers at Florence were able to read only 1.8 percent of 2,464 pieces of incoming mail.

The BOP statement said that the bureau had already implemented many of Fine's recommendations.

In response to the report, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) blasted prison officials yesterday as "incompetent when it comes to detecting possible terrorist activity in federal prisons."

"Given past evidence of terrorists communicating with live terror cells from inside prison walls, it is inexcusable that the BOP is not monitoring high risk prisoners more closely," Schumer said in a statement.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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