More than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans, some foreign flight students are still not subject to terror database screening until after they've completed pilot training, according to a new report from the government's watchdog.
"Thus, foreign nationals obtaining flight training with the intent to do harm, such as three of the pilots and leaders of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, could have already obtained the training needed to operate an aircraft before they received any type of vetting," says report, published today by the Government Accountability Office.
In the Sept. 11 attacks, 19 foreign nationals hijacked four commercial airliners and used the planes as weapons to hit the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in the nation's capital. Several of the hijackers attended more than a dozen American flight schools in the weeks before the attacks to learn how to fly the jets.
After the attacks, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) established the Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP), which is designed to prevent flight schools regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration from "providing flight training to a foreign student unless the Secretary of Homeland Security first determines that the student does not pose a threat to aviation or national security."
But the new GAO report says that the AFSP database is woefully behind and some of the more than 25,000 foreign nationals who were in the FAA airmen registry were not found in the AFSP database, "indicating that these individuals had not applied to the AFSP or been vetted by the TSA before taking flight training and receiving an FAA airman certificate."
"It is disturbing to learn we could still be vulnerable to the same actions the 9/11 hijackers took over a decade ago," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R.-Alabama), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Transportation Security.
The GAO report is the centerpiece of the subcommittee's hearing today, but the problem has apparently persisted despite being publicly exposed years before. In both 2006 and 2008, ABC News reported that government officials were growing increasingly frustrated with the AFSP system.
"Some of the very same conditions that allowed the 9-11 tragedy to happen in the first place are still very much in existence today," wrote one regional security official to his boss at the TSA in 2008. "Thousands of aliens, some of whom may very well pose a threat to this country, are taking flight lessons, being granted FAA certifications and are flying planes."
TSA official Kerwin Wilson said in a prepared statement before today's subcommittee hearing that the Administration "concurred" with the GAO's recommendations and said it would update the watchdog agency in 60 days on its own investigation into the vetting problem.
"TSA employs risk-based, intelligence-driven operations to prevent terrorist attacks and to reduce the vulnerability of the Nation's transportation system to terrorism," Wilson said. "Our goal at all times is to maximize transportation security to stay ahead of evolving terrorist threats while protecting privacy and facilitating the flow of legitimate commerce."
[Editor's Note: A previous version of this story inaccurately reported that "more than 25,000" foreign nationals that were in the FAA airmen registry were not found in the AFSP database. Current edition corrected the error and now says "some of" the more than 25,000 checked were not found in each database, as noted in the GAO report.]