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.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
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.

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

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.

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.”

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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