A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has asked the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Inspector General to investigate why suspect individuals – including terrorists and drug kingpins – have been able to retain their Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pilot's licenses.
In a letter to DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner, the senators cited media reports, including an ABC News investigation, that questioned the ability of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to purge the FAA's aviation list of individuals posing a threat to transportation security.
In one high-profile case reported by the Blotter, a well-known drug boss named Fernando Zevallos Gonzalez was able to keep his U.S. aviation license despite being on a "black list" of foreign drug kingpins since 2004.
The Blotter also reported the names of two other men tied to drug trafficking and two convicted arms traffickers who still had their licenses as of Oct. The New York Times revealed that individuals charged or convicted of terrorism-related crimes were also able to retain their FAA licenses. While some of the individuals named in the ABC News and Times reports have since been stripped of their licenses, others have not, according to Safe Banking Systems (SBS), the New York computer security firm that first uncovered the suspect cases.
"These reports are disturbing, and suggest that people who are believed to pose security threats to our nation continue to have ready access to aircraft and airport facilities," the letter to Skinner states. The letter is signed by senators Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., ranking member of the committee; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security; and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., ranking member of the subcommittee.
After 9/11, the TSA was charged with vetting the approximately four million people who hold FAA pilot's licenses of various kinds. The letter calls on the DHS Inspector General to identify weaknesses in the current vetting process and to investigate whether the TSA is properly cross-referencing the FAA's aviation list with other terrorist screening databases.
"I am concerned about the vetting system in place at the TSA," said Sen. Rockefeller. "Americans deserve to know that the skies are safe from terrorist threats. I continue to follow the steps the TSA is taking to address these issues. We cannot afford gaps in a vetting system so integral to our national security."
A spokesperson for the TSA said, "The Transportation Security Administration will cooperate fully with the Inspector General on this matter."
In the past, the agency has said that the TSA and the FAA "work closely together to screen… FAA certificate holders to keep the American people safe." The TSA said it conducted a thorough review this summer of the FAA's list of licensed pilots.
SBS discovered the cases by cross-checking the FAA's public data base against information on suspect individuals. SBS also discovered that at least 12 members of Osama bin Laden's family currently hold FAA pilot's licenses. "I am glad the government is finally taking notice of our public service work in exposing these flaws in their vetting process," said David Schiffer of SBS.
Eric Longabardi is an award-winning producer and investigative journalist who is a frequent contributor to the Blotter.