GOP hits TSA over 'alien' flight training

The Transportation Security Administration is failing to ensure that foreign students at American flight schools are not terrorists, Republican lawmakers argued Wednesday.

Seizing on a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), members of the House Homeland Security Committee's subcommittee on Transportation Security raised the possibility of U.S. flight schools training potential hijackers in a hearing designed to review protocols for foreign flight students "a decade after 9/11."

The GAO report found that a loophole could allow foreign flight students to be cleared for flying lessons earlier than they would be cleared to fly commercially on U.S. airlines.

The chairman of the transportation subpanel, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), said Tuesday the finding raised the possibility that the students could be hijackers. 

"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," he said.

"GAO’s finding is clear, and that is: Not all foreign nationals who train to fly airplanes inside the U.S. have been properly vetted," he said. 

Other Republicans on the panel agreed.

"Moussaoui was actually flying the same simulators I flew at Northwest Airlines, so this is kind of a personal issue for me," Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) said in a reference to Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who was convicted of conspiring to take part in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks after taking flight lessons in Oklahoma.  

Cravaack, a former pilot and federal air marshal, said it would never be possible to completely eliminate the threat of terrorism in the U.S. aviation system.

But he said Tuesday "we never want to have a Moussaoui being able to take flight training ... and be able to fly an airplane into a building.

"We want to make sure that nobody flies into an IRS building," he said, likely referencing a 2010 crash in Austin, Texas, by a private citizen flying a small airplane that was later called an "act of domestic terrorism."

TSA defended its handling of its handling of foreign flight training, which is done through a program known as the Alien Flight Student Program.

"Under the [AFSP] program, non-U.S. citizens seeking to undergo Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified flight training are required to submit to a rigorous background screening that includes a name-based terrorism check, a name-based immigration check, a fingerprint-based criminal history records check, submittal of security documents including passport copies, and specific information about their desired training events," TSA Manager for General Aviation Kerwin Wilson said in testimony submitted to the panel.

Wilson said he agreed with lawmakers that foreign flight students had to be thoroughly checked, but he said it was important to the U.S. economy to offer flight training to students from other nationalities.

"Flight schools are an important business in the aviation industry and continue to welcome properly vetted aliens as an economic benefit to the United States," he said. "General aviation includes more than 200,000 aircraft operating at more than 19,000 facilities in the United States for the purposes of such tasks as air medical-ambulance, corporate aviation, and private charters."

Lawmakers on the Transportation Security panel agreed, but Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) questioned why foreign flights students were trained at the same facilities as would-be American pilots.
"Why do we have a policy for training U.S. citizens and a policy for training foreign citizens and the same people are training at the same place?" Thompson said.

But Cravaack countered that even an American flight student could "flip" after being "perfectly normal."  

"We're never going to have 100 percent security," Cravaack said. 

Wilson said TSA "concurs with all of the recommendations identified" in the GAO report and would update lawmakers on the House panel on its efforts to close loopholes in the flight training inspection process within 90 days.