José Meléndez-Pérez is a Puerto Rican-born United States Customs and Border Protection Inspector at Orlando International Airport who became a key figure for the 9/11 Commission when he refused entry to an alleged terrorist prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Meléndez-Pérez's story is told in the book Instinct by Michael Smerconish (Lyons Press, September 2009). Prior to the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, he was employed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) from November 15, 1992 to April 30, 2003.
He is a retired member of the United States Army where he served honorably for over 26 years. He served two tours of duty in the Vietnam War, 1965–1966 and 1969–1970. He was later assigned as a first sergeant to the United States Army Recruiting Command for approximately 15 years.
After his separation from the U.S. Army, he began his career with INS in November 1992 at Miami International Airport as an inspector, and later as an inspector at Orlando International Airport. He has recently served for six months at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, providing assistance to the firearms program.
Actions on August 4, 2001
A Saudi Arabian national, Mohammed al Qahtani, landed in Orlando on a Virgin Atlantic flight. Since Qahtani's forms were not properly filled out, he was moved to a secondary interview, conducted by Meléndez-Pérez. The Saudi did not have a return ticket or a hotel. He had $2,800 in cash and no credit cards. Questions to where he would stay and where he would go were evasive. Besides being quite hostile, Qahtani also made contradictory statements regarding his plans.
Meléndez-Pérez advised his superiors to have him sent back. As, according to his testimony, he sent Qahtani back out of the United States, the man allegedly turned around to him and said "something to the effect of 'I'll be back.'"