Napolitano: ‘Historically’ DHS Hasn’t Vetted U.S. Citizens Against No-Fly List Before They Take Flight Lessons

Edwin Mora | July 25, 2012 | 5:14pm EDT
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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. (AP Photo)

( -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told lawmakers today that, historically, her department has chosen not to vet U.S. citizens against the no-fly list before they take flight lessons at American flight-training schools because the law that deals with screening such people is unclear.

However, when asked to comment on a Tranportation Security Administration (TSA) official   who said that U.S. citizens on the no-fly list are not vetted prior to taking flight lessons, Napolitano said, back on July 19, that the official may not be aware of all the security precautions in place to stop a no-fly list person from getting a pilot’s license.

Maintained by the U.S. government’s Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), the no-fly list is comprised of individuals who are not allowed to board a commercial aircraft for travel in and out of the United States.  The list, created in response to the 9/11 attacks, contains about 10,000 names, including that of U.S. citizens.

At a hearing today of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the ranking-member of the committee, asked Napolitano, “Last week, we were told that American citizens can be trained to fly planes and not be vetted against the no-fly list. We were told that foreigners are vetted through a robust process -- that would only start once they are cleared. The question was whether or not a process can be put where anyone, before they’re admitted into a flight school, would be vetted and the testimony from the department at that time was it couldn’t be done. Have you looked at that since that testimony was presented to this committee?”

“I have,” said Napolitano.

Rep. Thompson then asked, “What is your position on it?”

Napolitano said, “Well, the answer is yes, there’s a distinction between U.S. citizens and foreign persons who are seeking to get flight training. With respect to U.S. citizens who may be on one of our watch-lists, they’re a variety of ways that we can and do keep abreast of their activities.”

“I don’t want to go into those in open setting, but the law is somewhat unclear as to whether we can vet a U.S. citizen prior to their application for certification from the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration],” said Napolitano.

“So the department historically has taken the position that we cannot formally vet them, any U.S. citizen before that application,” she said.

Later, a ranking committee member said, “Right now, you also admit that that’s a problem,” in reference to the non-formal vetting of U.S. citizens on the no-fly list who want to attend flight school.

Napolitano said, “It can be a gap, but, again, let me just say it can be a gap that would be easily filled a number of ways and those for whom we actually have watch-list information, there’s a variety of ways we receive information about possible flight school training, but it would be nice to tidy up the law a little bit.”

On July 18, Rep. Thompson (D-Miss.) had asked Kerwin Wilson, the general manager for General Aviation at TSA's Office of Security Policy and Industry Engagement, “Would a U.S. citizen on a no-fly list be able to obtain flight training without undergoing a security threat assessment?”

Wilson said, “Mr. Thompson, that is correct, but keep in mind the way the program is set up there is layered security put in place. You’re right, initially a U.S. citizen who is on the no-fly list could commence flight training. But once the individual receives a flight certificate, an FAA certificate, that individual is bounced against various databases as well [and] perpetually vetted, meaning that individual is vetted once a day, once a week.”

During a July 19 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) asked Napolitano about Wilson’s testimony (from July 18).

Napolitano told Lungren, “Mr. Representative, let me take the opportunity to offer a classified briefing to you. The plain fact of the matter is there are lots of different ways someone on the no-fly list would not be in a position to get a pilot’s license. But I think I need to go into classified briefing.”

Lungren then said, “Okay, I understand the classified – but the statement was made on the record yesterday that they’re not checked against the no-fly list, period, and that is disturbing, if that is the case.”

Napolitano answered, “The TSA representative may not have been aware of all the other things that occur.”

During the July 25 hearing where Napolitano spoke about the subject, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said that the Congressional Research Service (CRS) told him the DHS secretary has the authority to deny flight training to Americans on the no fly-list under current statue.

“I asked the CRS [Congressional Research Service] to look at this and they say you already have the power -- that the secretary can designate an individual or category of individuals that must be vetted under current statue,” said Rep. Rogers.

Napolitano said, “When somebody is actually on the no-fly list and is a U.S. person, we have a variety of ways of knowing what they are doing before they apply for certification, but they are not formally vetted or pinned against the system until they are applying to the FAA.”

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