Want to Fly Through a Loophole in the No-Fly List? Buy a Plane

No-Fly Terror List Includes Big Financial Backer of ClintonCourtesy Jerome Werner/Hadi Khalil
Gilbert Chagoury's Dassault Falcon airplane lands in Van Nuys, Calif. A loophole allowed Chagoury, a Nigerian billionaire and Clinton ally, to fly around the U.S. while on the no-fly list.

For wealthy Nigerian businessman Gilbert Chagoury and others like him, a place on the U.S. government's recently expanded terrorist no-fly list has not turned out to be a major impediment to a jet-setting lifestyle.

That's because a loophole in the Transportation Security Administration's security regulations does not require any screening for those flying domestically on a privately-owned aircraft, no matter how large.

Both TSA officials and FBI Terrorist Screening Center director Timothy Healy confirmed to ABC News last week that the effort to keep U.S. airspace off-limits to terror suspects has not included vetting the passengers and pilots on large private jets such as the one owned by Chagoury, which he has used to shuttle between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York and Europe.

Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman, said the agency has been working for some time on a fix to toughen the restrictions for non-commercial jets.

"We're working with industry to strengthen security for private planes that have previously gone unregulated," Soule said.

Despite the loophole, Chagoury's movements did not totally escape notice. In January, the wealthy philanthropist, who has been a significant financial supporter of former President Bill Clinton, was stopped from boarding his private jet as it was undergoing repairs at Teterboro Airport in northern New Jersey, according to a report of the incident provided to ABCNews.com.

The report says that law enforcement authorities discovered Chagoury was a "positive match" to the Gilbert Chagoury on the terrorism no-fly list, based on his date of birth. He was traveling on a British passport, which does not require a U.S. visa to enter the country. The report said Chagoury was also named on a second watch list called TIDE, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center.

Chagoury's son, Gilbert Jr., confirmed last month that his father was detained by TSA officers at Teterboro. A report of the incident said agents from the FBI and Customs and Border Patrol asked Chagoury, four other passengers and two crew members to wait for several hours before they were permitted to board the jet and depart for Paris.

The brief detention provided the first public indication that Chagoury had been placed on any watch list, and because the government never comments on individual names on the no-fly list, it is unknown whether he remains on either list. Reached Monday, Chagoury's son said that neither he nor his father wished to discuss the matter.

A spokesperson for the Terrorist Screening Center last month declined to comment about Chagoury. The spokesperson did say the list is "fluid" and individuals may be moved up or downgraded at any time based on the current threat environment, but "an individual's social status, financial means, and political affiliations are not considered" in an individual being moved up or down the list.

Well before Chagoury was detained, flight records for his Dassault Falcon show the private aircraft had been making frequent trips both inside and outside the U.S.

Unlike commercial airline passengers, who are screened against the no-fly list both on domestic and international flights, there is no requirement that those on the private aircraft be screened during domestic travel, according to Healy, who heads the Terrorist Screening Center. Healy said that was something the TSA was "working on."

The current security rules for non-commercial travelers only impact operators of charter aircraft. TSA requires charter companies handling flights on large aircraft to properly vet all passengers and employees, including checking them against the no-fly list. They also require passenger checks for flights entering or leaving the U.S. Those requirements could be expanded soon, TSA officials said.

In October 2008, TSA proposed new security measures for private general aviation aircraft. But they encountered resistance from some advocates for privately-owned planes. After seeking public comment, the TSA is preparing a new set of security rules for aircraft not currently regulated under other programs, Soule said.

"This draft proposal will represent a significant strengthening of general aviation security and enhances other post-9/11 measures," he said.

Ed Bolen, the president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, has been monitoring the rules and said he believes the level of passenger scrutiny will increase with the takeoff weight of the aircraft. "Their reasoning is that large aircraft are significantly more capable of doing damage," he said.

Soule said the process is "still very much ongoing," with a period for public input expected to come later this year. "Until that time, it is premature to draw conclusions about the final rule. Americans can rest assured that whatever final policy emerges, it will represent a strengthening of general aviation security," he said.

In the days since the January incident, it appears that Chagoury has been free to continue to take to the skies. His plane crossed the Atlantic twice in February, according to publicly available flight records. Described as a billionaire, Chagoury runs an industrial conglomerate in Nigeria, the Chagoury Group. In 2009 Chagoury pledged $1 billion via the Chagoury Group as part of his commitment to the Clinton Global Initiative, according to the Global Initiative website. Chagoury also recently donated more than $1 million to the Clinton Foundation, according to a list of donors made public by the foundation in December. Members of Chagoury's family were contributors to the 2008 Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

A Clinton spokesman, Matt McKenna, said last month that the former President's office was unaware of the incident until contacted by ABCNews.com. "We had no role whatsoever" in helping Chagoury get permission to resume his travels, said McKenna. "Nor would we ever," he added.

Eric Longabardi is an award-winning producer and investigative journalist who is a frequent contributor to the Blotter, ABCNews.com's investigative page.

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