JULY 19, 2012
It’s unfathomable that a decade after the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, the multi-billion-dollar government agency created to secure the nation’s transportation system—mainly aviation—is so inept that the country remains inexcusably vulnerable to a repeat of 9/11.
That’s essentially what the latest of many federal audits reveals about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the massive, 65,000-employee Homeland Security agency created by Congress after the 2001 terrorist attacks. The seemingly elusive mission is to secure transportation by adequately screening luggage, passengers and properly vetting foreign flight students.
After all, Islamic terrorists, trained as pilots at U.S. aviation schools, intentionally crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. When Congress created the TSA a year later, one of its key duties was to scrutinize all foreign flight students before they can take lessons or get a pilot’s license in the U.S. This is essential because the al Qaeda terrorists who piloted the jetliners in 2001 trained in schools in Florida, Arizona and Minnesota.
As the 11th anniversary of the attacks approaches, the TSA’s Alien Flight Student Program (AFSP) still fails to screen foreign nationals who enroll in U.S. flight schools, according to a report published this week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. In fact, the agency isn’t even keeping its database of background checks up to date and investigators found that records were missing for 25,000 foreign nationals who trained as pilots here.
It gets better. The TSA’s special program doesn’t even bother to determine if the candidates are in the country illegally. This has been reported before. In fact, well over a year ago a flight school in Stow Massachusetts, a rural community about 25 miles west of Boston, made headlines because it was operated by an illegal immigrant who somehow got a U.S. pilot’s license and more than 30 illegal aliens, cleared by the TSA, were enrolled and training to fly planes.
Pilots are actually licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), but the agency relies on the TSA for criminal and immigration background checks. The TSA is also responsible for clearing airport workers who enter secure areas. In previous years the agency actually approved background checks for illegal immigrants to work in sensitive areas of busy airports in various parts of the country.
Considering this, the GAO puts it way too diplomatically by saying “weaknesses exist in the vetting process” for “identifying flight students who may be in the country illegally.” Investigators recommend that the TSA “identify how often and why foreign nationals are not vetted under AFSP and develop a plan for assessing the results of efforts to identify AFSP-approved foreign flight students who entered the country illegally.”
Don’t hold your breath. It’s been more than a decade and the TSA can’t get its act together, despite being generously funded by Congress. The agency’s many transgressions have been well documented over the years and include regularly missing guns and bombs during random tests at major U.S. airports and failing to meet federal standards by not screening cargo and passengers on hundreds of thousands of planes that fly over the U.S. annually.
Last fall a scathing report issued by a House Transportation Committee called for an overhaul of the TSA, saying that the inept and bloated agency has failed miserably to fulfill its mission. The TSA has “grown into an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy” that has lost its focus on transportation security, according to the committee’s report. It further states that the TSA “lacks administrative competency” and “suffers from bureaucratic morass and mismanagement.”
In another zinger earlier this year, the former head of the TSA called the agency a national embarrassment that’s hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people it is meant to protect. In a newspaper article promoting his new book about the agency’s inner workings, former TSA had Kip Hawley assures that “airport security in America is broken” yet it has transformed air travel into an “unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas.”
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