CAPITOL HILL — More than a decade after the al-Qaida terrorist attacks on the United States, a new U.S. government report says that some foreign aviation students still are not subject to terror database screening until after they have completed their flight training. A Transportation Security Administration official faced tough criticism on Wednesday.
Several of the hijackers on September 11, 2001 trained in the United States to learn to fly jets into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing more than 3,000 people.
A new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says American commercial flight schools could still be unknowingly training potential terrorists.
At a hearing on Capitol Hill, Mike Rogers, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Transportation Security, part of House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, said he is amazed and disturbed that this is possible, given the measures put in place during the past decade.
"We have cancer patients, Iraq War veterans, and Nobel Peace Prize winners, all forced to undergo rigorous security checks before getting on an airplane. At the same time, there are foreign nationals in the U.S. training to fly, just like Mohamed Atta and the other 9/11 [i.e., September 11, 2001] hijackers did, and not all of them are necessarily getting a security background check," he said.
After the attacks, the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, established the Alien Flight Student Program to ensure that all foreign flight students receive criminal background checks and are screened against a terrorist watch list before they begin training.
At Wednesday's hearing, the TSA came under pressure from several lawmakers for the lack of screening cited in the report.
TSA official Kerwin Wilson said flight schools share some of the responsibility. "Flight training providers, regulated under this program, are prohibited from providing flight training to aliens until a security threat assessment has been successfully conducted by TSA," he said.
Some House lawmakers at the hearing pointed out that the United States has been a global leader in flight training, and that it is impossible to provide absolute security from all potential threats, domestic and foreign.
Representative Chip Cravaack said, "We have a viable business in the United States in making sure that people without malintent want to come to the United States to become one of the best pilots in the world."
Government officials at the hearing said they will work to resolve the terror database screening problem within the next three months.
Another security weakness that emerged in the hearing is that U.S. citizens who are on the government's "no-fly" list because they are considered threats would still be able to learn how to fly at commercial flight schools. U.S. citizens are not subject to the same screening regulations as foreign flight students. Lawmakers said this is another issue that the TSA needs to address.