Napolitano: 'We Took Steps in 2010'--9 Yrs After 9/11--to Vet Foreign Flight-School Students

Edwin Mora | July 19, 2012 | 4:17pm EDT
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Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

( -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday that the Obama administration finally "took steps" in 2010 to vet foreign students applying to U.S. flight schools.

Napolitano's testimony came one day after reported that in 2010 local police in Massachusetts made a traffic stop on a person who they determined to be an illegal alien. The illegal alien it turned out owned a flight school, which, it turned out, had been attended by another 25 illegal aliens, three of whom had been awarded pilots licenses.

This was all 9 years after the 9/11 hijackers--some of whom had also attended flight schools in the United States--flew commercial airliners into the World Trade towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

In her testimony on Thursday, Napolitano added that even to this day DHS has not issued a written directive confirming that it is doing the screening of foreign nationals learning to fly aircraft in the United States.

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The 9/11 airline-terrorist attacks occurred nearly 11 years ago and the rule set by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to have DHS screen foreign nationals who want flight training was authorized in 2004.

In questioning Napolitano about the issue, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) cited a July 18 news story by, based on a Government Accountability Office report, which showed that the TSA had allowed 25 illegal aliens to attend a Boston-area flight school that was owned by an illegal alien.

(AP Photo)

For the 25 unauthorized aliens, 8 had entered the country illegally and 17 had overstayed their allowed period of admission into the United States. The GAO also found that a portion of the 25,599 who had applied for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pilot licenses from January 2006 through September 2011 had not been vetted properly before taking flight training or receiving an FAA certificate.

After outlining those facts,  Rep. Sensenbrenner asked Secretary Napolitano, “This sounds like a 9/11 déjà vu and I’m wondering what the Department of Homeland Security is going to do to make sure that everybody who is in a flight school is properly vetted if they’re a foreign national?”

Napolitano said, “Yes, I think that report referred to a several year old matter, which obviously is of concern. But we took steps in 2010 to make sure that all foreign students who are in this country applying to flight school are vetted -- and that has been in place and we intend to confirm that we’ve been doing it for two years.”

“I think what the GAO said [was], well, you don’t have a written thing that says ‘we agreed we’ve been doing it,’ but you need a written MOA [memorandum of agreement],” said Napolitano.  “So we’re going to put that together.”

Sensenbrenner then asked, “And how long will that take?”

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) (AP Photo)

“Oh we’ll do it very quickly,” said Napolitano. “I think the flight schools we want to make sure we’re very tight there for obvious reasons.”

Rep. Sensenbrenner then asked, “Okay, the story also said that the GAO did not provide the full number of individuals who were not properly vetted. Do you have numbers on how many of these folks were not properly vetted?”

Napolitano did not provide those numbers but said, “Well, all I can say is that foreign students are vetted and they have been being vetted for several years. If they apply to the FAA for a license there is a re-vetting that goes on and then the FAA database is routinely pinned against our national security and criminal databases.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R.-Ala.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security, questioned the author of the GAO report, Stephen Lord, about vetting foreign nationals before they attend U.S. flight schools during a July 18 hearing. (Lord is director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at the GAO and his report is entitled, General Aviation Security: TSA’s Process for Ensuring Foreign Flight Students Do Not Pose a Security Risk Has Weaknesses.)

"We have cancer patients, Iraq War veterans and Nobel Prize winners all forced to undergo rigorous security checks before getting on an airplane," said Rogers, "and at the same time, ten years after 9/11, there are foreign nationals in the United States trained to fly just like Mohammed Atta and the other 9/11 hijackers did, and not all of them are necessarily getting a security background check."

Rogers then asked Lord, "Isn't it true that, based on your report, the Transportation Security Administration cannot assure the American people that foreign terrorists are not in this country learning how to fly airplanes, yes or no?"

"At this time, no," said Lord.

According to the 911 Commission Report,  four of the Sept. 11 hijackers who entered the United States with legal visas had overstayed their authorized period of admission. The terrorists involved learned how to pilot the aircrafts that were used as weapons that day at U.S. flight schools.

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