Congress is investigating reports that foreign nationals training
to fly planes in the US were not properly vetted or are in the
country on fraudulent visas - a lapse from standards set up after
the 9/11 attacks.
Could American flight schools still unknowingly be training
terrorists, a decade after 9/11?
The question comes on the heels of a new US Government
Accountability Office (GAO) investigation that concludes that not
all foreign nationals who are training to fly airplanes inside the
United States are being "properly vetted."
Mohammed Atta and other terrorists responsible for the 9/11
attacks learned to pilot airplanes at flight schools in Florida,
Arizona, and Minnesota.
"It is completely unacceptable that a decade after 9/11, GAO has
uncovered weaknesses in our security controls that were supposed to
be fixed a decade ago," Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Alabama, chairman of
the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security,
said at a hearing earlier this month on the topic. "The GAO's
findings are clear."
While much of the recent concern around flight schools has been
driven by the GAO report, there have been some other recent
incidents that have given lawmakers and terrorism analysts pause.
Last December, a woman was arrested for bringing foreign students
from Egypt, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan to train at her southern
California flight school with fraudulent visas. "She is not
scrutinizing people, nor does she have the ability to know whether
or not they have terrorist ties, which is why the whole procedure
exists," Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of US Immigration
and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said in an interview after the
arrest. "These people are actually going up in the air to get their
training - they're getting access to aircraft, too - and we don't
know who they are."
This was not a one-time event. At a Boston-area flight school in
2010, the Department of Homeland Security's ICE division discovered
25 illegal immigrants who were enrolled and taking flight lessons.
"That's not the worst of it," Representative Rogers notes. "The
owner of the flight school was also here illegally." The aspiring
student pilots had nonetheless been approved by the Transportation
Security Administration (TSA) to take the lessons, despite their
illegal immigration status.
Indeed, a recent TSA analysis found that more than 25,000 foreign
nationals in a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) database were
not in the TSA's database, "meaning that they had received an FAA
airman certificate but had not been successfully vetted or received
permission from the TSA to begin flight training," according to
Stephen Lord, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at
the GAO. …