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Homeland Security: Are US flight schools still training terrorists?

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.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / July 24, 2012

An airliner, on an approach to LaGuardia Airport, passes the Empire State Building in New York in this Aug. 2, 2002 file photo. Congress is investigating security loopholes in the Homeland Security Department's screening of foreigners who want to attend flight schools in the US.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File

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Washington

Could American flight schools still unknowingly be training terrorists, a decade after 9/11?

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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.

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