In the wake of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report showing that foreign flight students can be cleared for flying lessons earlier than they would be cleared to fly commercially on U.S. airlines, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee has filed a bill to close a loophole in the Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP).
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said that the Republican-led panel should quickly schedule a hearing to consider H.R. 6159, the “Flight School Security Act of 2012.” In a letter to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the transportation security subcommittee, he wrote, “H.R. 6159 would require all persons seeking flight training to be checked against the terrorist watch list before they receive training.”
Under current rules, the FAA certifies flight students before they are checked against the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) “No Fly” list. According to the GAO report to Congress, the TSA vets foreign flight student applicants through the AFSP, but weaknesses exist in the vetting process and in the Department of Homeland Security’s process for identifying flight students who may be in the country illegally.
From January 2006 through September 2011, more than 25,000 foreign nationals applied for FAA airman certificates, indicating they had completed flight training. However, TSA computerized matching of FAA data determined that some known number of foreign nationals did not match with those in the TSA’s database, raising questions about whether they had been vetted.
In addition, AFSP is not designed to determine whether a foreign flight student entered the country illegally. Thus, a foreign national can be approved for training through AFSP after entering the country illegally. A March 2010 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) flight school investigation led to the arrest of six such foreign nationals, including one who had a commercial pilot certificate.
As a result, the TSA and ICE jointly worked on vetting names of foreign students against immigration databases, but the GAO found the agencies have neither specified desired outcomes and time frames nor assigned people with responsibility for fully instituting the program. Congress was told that having a road map, with steps and time frames, and assigning individuals the responsibility for fully instituting a pilot program could help the TSA and ICE better identify and prevent potential risk.
Stephen Lord, director for homeland security and justice issues for the GAO, noted that two versions of the report–titled “General Aviation Security: Weaknesses Exist in TSA’s Process for Ensuring Foreign Flight Students Do Not Pose a Security Threat”–were released prior to a July 18 hearing before Rogers’ subcommittee.
The version released at the congressional hearing did not contain some “sensitive security information,” which must be protected from public disclosure. “Therefore, this report omits sensitive information regarding potential vulnerabilities we identified related to the TSA’s vetting process for foreign nationals seeking flight training, and associated recommendations we made,” the GAO revealed. “In addition, we have omitted sensitive background information on the potential damage that could be caused by different types of general aviation aircraft crashing into buildings.”
Rogers’ panel questioned TSA officials about the possibility of another hijacking by terrorists trained to fly in a U.S. flight school. “[Zacarias] Moussaoui was actually flying the same simulators I flew at Northwest Airlines, so this is a personal issue for me,” said Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) during the July 18 hearing. Moussaoui is a French citizen who was convicted of conspiring to take part in the 9/11 terrorist attacks after taking flight lessons in Oklahoma.
Although the thrust of the GAO report was ensuring that foreign flight students do not pose a security threat, the agency briefly touched on other GA security topics. The report noted that the TSA’s proposed Large Aircraft Security Program (Lasp) has been in limbo since October 2008. “However, in light of concerns expressed by the aviation industry, including concerns about the cost of implementing provisions of the proposed rule, the TSA delayed issuing a final rule and instead plans to issue a new proposed rule in late 2012 or 2013,” the GAO said.