GAO: Post 9/11, flight schools still security threat

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 18, 2012 

— More than a decade after 9/11, the Transportation Security Administration is still failing to follow proper vetting procedures for foreign nationals enrolling at flight schools, a report released Wednesday revealed.

In testimony before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Homeland Security, the Government Accountability Office said it found fault with TSA’s Alien Flight Student Program, which attempts to establish whether foreign students hoping to enroll at U.S. flight schools are a security threat to the United States.

Before foreign nationals can begin flight training, the Alien Flight Student Program requires they undergo name- and fingerprint-based background checks. They also must submit security documents, such as a passport, said Kerwin Wilson, the TSA official who oversees the flight school screening program.

But according to the GAO, the Transportation Security Administration has failed to keep its database of these background checks up to date.

By cross-referencing the Federal Aviation Administration’s database of registered pilots with similar information kept by the TSA’s Alien Flight Student Program, the GAO found that some of about 25,000 foreign nationals registered with the FAA were missing from the transportation agency’s database, the GAO’s Stephen Lord told the committee.

Moreover, the Alien Flight Student Program does not determine whether these individuals are in the country illegally, Lord said.

When Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., asked at the hearing Wednesday whether an individual who was unable to board a commercial plane because he posed a threat to U.S. security could begin to learn to fly that same plane, officials from both the GAO and the TSA said yes.

Lawmakers at the hearing told the TSA it needed to fix its broken vetting system.

“We cannot allow loopholes exploited by the 9/11 hijackers to be exploited again,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

To try to close the loopholes, the GAO suggested the TSA cooperate with other government agencies – in particular the FAA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement – to properly vet foreign nationals, Lord said.

Wilson of the TSA said his agency generally agreed with the GAO’s recommendations.

The agency said it plans to update the GAO by Aug. 10 and the committee three months after that – a timeline that Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the subcommittee’s chairman, deemed unacceptable.

“You’re telling me you’ve got to wait until December to find out how long it is going to take to fix this?” he asked.

Although the majority of Wednesday’s hearing was spent criticizing the TSA’s efforts to protect the U.S. against foreign security threats, Rogers acknowledged that other security agencies responsible for vetting foreign nationals needed to step up their game as well.

“Nobody’s hands are clean,” he said, making several allusions to a government agency whose name wasn’t disclosed for security reasons.

Thompson said government agencies need to look beyond the threat of foreign nationals to keep the country safe.

In February 2010, an American citizen flew into an Internal Revenue Service building in Texas, which Thompson said should cause the TSA to also think about vetting Americans on the no-fly list.

“We cannot ignore that there is more to general aviation security than just vetting foreign nationals,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said in a prepared statement.

Email: kkomolafe@mcclatchydc.com

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