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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.

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Indeed, a recent TSA analysis found that more than 25,000 foreign nationals in a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) database were not in the TSA’s database, “meaning that they had received an FAA airman certificate but had not been successfully vetted or received permission from the TSA to begin flight training,” according to Stephen Lord, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the GAO. “In a perfect world, the two databases should match.”

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Of course, foreign nationals do not hold a monopoly on the nefarious use of planes. In February 2010, American software engineer Andrew Joseph Stack crashed his small plane into an Austin, Texas, IRS building after posting a bitter Internet rant against corporate “thugs.” Mr. Stack killed two people in the attack, including himself.

After the latest arrest in California in December, ICE's Counterterrorism and Criminal Exploitation Unit launched “Operation Clipped Wings” to identify further gaps in aviation security around training of foreign nationals and even employees at repair stations for FAA aircraft. So far this year, the ICE program has identified over 30 “investigative leads” and made four arrests, according to ICE officials. TSA has also vowed to close the loopholes identified in the GAO report.

Yet aviation industry leaders note that many of the security measures are duplicative and costly. Pilot training in the US is big business. More than one fifth of the airman tests administered by the FAA last year were to foreign citizens, Jens Hennig, vice president of operations for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), reminded lawmakers. Invoking what lawmakers claim to be the No. 1 issue on Capitol Hill, he added: “Pilot training is also essentially for a healthy manufacturing industry. When GAMA members sell new aircraft to a customer, it is often accompanied by training for the pilot and crew.”

Big business aside, many of the current security measures often amount to overkill, says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University and coauthor with Mark Stewart of “Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security.”

The amount of damage being done with planes in the United States is not worth the money being put into security, says Mr. Mueller. After 9/11, flight crews who had long been instructed to follow the demands of hijackers to ensure the safety of crew and passengers received new training in self-defense. Cockpit doors are now heavily fortified as well, not to mention “pilots who are surely preparing themselves for a fight should it come to that.”

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