Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Alabama), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security, convened a hearing on July 18 to examine whether or not the U.S. remains vulnerable to terrorists training at flight schools. A GAO report released on the same day revealed inconsistencies in the vetting process currently utilized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
While the GAO report identified areas of concern, it noted that of more than 18,000 people vetted thus far, only 30 are under investigation for visa overstays. Further, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told committee members that it plans to issue a new rule governing flight training and general aviation (GA) security later this year or early next.
Government witnesses from the TSA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told lawmakers that the two agencies are aggressively working to address concerns within the next 90 days.
Chairman Rogers, in his opening statement, called into question the TSA's effectiveness at making sure foreign nationals training at U.S. flight schools do not pose a security threat, remarking, "It is disturbing to learn we could still be vulnerable to the same actions the 9/11 hijackers took over a decade ago."
The GAO report found "big gaps," determining that not all foreign nationals who train in the U.S. are receiving security background checks and some are circumventing the vetting program.
TSA officials testified there is a 96 percent compliance rate by flight schools, and TSA works continually with industry to enhance security at training facilities. Yet, lawmakers were told that alien flight students who initiated the vetting process and did not receive authority to commence training were in fact able to begin training.
Further, some individuals on the “no fly list" were approved for flight training. Government officials declined to answer a question as to whether the 9/11 hijackers would have been approved for flight training based on current rules and regulations, prompting lawmakers to ask whether additional legislative/regulatory authority from Congress is needed. Agency officials assured Chairman Rogers that no additional authority is necessary at this time.
TSA made it clear that flight training providers are the "first line of defense", and that it is the responsibility of the flight school prior to commencing training to wait for TSA to advise that a threat assessment has been completed.
Among the weaknesses uncovered - foreign nationals can be approved for training after entering the country illegally, and GAO officials were unable to assure Chairman Rogers and his committee that terrorists are not in the U.S. receiving flight training.