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TSA admits federal air marshals are not aboard Cuba flights

TSA admits federal air marshals are not aboard Cuba flights
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The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) admitted Wednesday that federal air marshals have not been onboard commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba since they began last month.

The TSA initially indicated that it secured an agreement with the Cuban government to allow armed federal air marshals to travel undercover on certain flights to and from the country.

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But during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Wednesday, TSA officials said they meant to say that only chartered flights — not commercial flights — would be equipped with federal air marshals.

A draft agreement was approved by the Department of State and sent to Cuba, but has not yet been signed by the Cuban government, the TSA confirmed.

“You misled the American public… and you did it at a time right before the flights were supposed to start,” said Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Transportation Security Subcommittee.

“That’s the type of thing that causes rifts between agencies and oversight.”

The revelation — which comes two weeks after scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba resumed for the first time 50 years — could add new fuel to the debate over whether Cuba's airport security protocols are up to snuff.

The Homeland Security Committee advanced a bill from Katko on Tuesday that would halt commercial flights to Cuba until a thorough security review is conducted at the country’s 10 airports.

The bill also seeks an agreement that gives TSA agents access to the country’s airports and permits federal air marshals on flights to and from Cuba.

Huban Gowadia, deputy administrator at TSA, said they are still working to secure such an agreement and have no indication that the Cuban government will reject it. She also said that the agency has been evasive about the agreement for security reasons, since air marshals are supposed to be operating undercover on select flights.

“We will continue to work to get that memorandum in place,” Gowadia said. “We will continue to attempt to get as many [federal air marshals] on as many flights from as many last points of departure as possible.”

Katko questioned why Seth Stodder, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for border and trade policy, testified earlier in the year that commercial flights wouldn't begin until the TSA secured a federal air marshal agreement with Cuba.

“He did misspeak,” Gowadia said.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system | Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal | National Guard may have 'training issues' if not reimbursed Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal Rising violent crime poses new challenge for White House MORE (R-Fla.), a staunch opponent of normalizing relations with Cuba, had a different characterization.

“They lied,” he said on the Senate floor. “They told us these flights would not begin.”