Report: TSA fails to vet thousands of foreign pilots

Thousands without background checks

SAN DIEGO - Eleven years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks, one of the key security breaches that allowed it to succeed still exists, according to a new report.

According to the Government Accountability Office's report, contrary to current regulations, foreign nationals are being trained to fly at some American flight schools with no background checks, including in San Diego.

The report to Congress says between January 2006 and September 2011, more than 25,000 foreign pilots didn't have a proper background check.

During a congressional hearing in July, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) questioned the author of the GAO report who admitted the problem still exists.

"Isn't it true that based on your report, the TSA can't assure the American people that terrorists aren't in this country learning how to fly airplanes, yes or no?" Rogers asked.

"At this time, no," was the response.

According to the GAO's report to Congress, "TSA has not ensured that all foreign nationals seeking flight training in the United States have been vetted … foreign nationals obtaining flight training with the intent to do harm...could have already obtained the training needed to operate an aircraft ..."

*To read the GAO report, click here

"National security is at risk here," San Diego County Supervisor Diane Jacob said. "Our federal government is allowing the breeding of a problem that should have been stopped a long time ago."

Jacob represents the East County and oversees airports in the unincorporated portions of San Diego County.

She said she was especially concerned because just 12 years ago, two of the 9/11 hijackers took flight classes in San Diego at Montgomery Field. 

The 10News I-Team investigated 19 flight schools in the county. According to the Transportation Security Administration, only six of those schools are authorized to teach foreign students to fly. Of the 12 remaining schools not authorized to teach foreign flight students, six admitted they have or do train foreign students.

The seven remaining flight schools did not respond to questions.

FAA officials told 10News the "TSA is responsible for vetting foreign nationals to receive flight training in the US. The FAA is not responsible for this."

The I-Team investigation also found the TSA was notified of the problem years ago. On October 5, 2005, FAA safety inspector Edward Blount wrote to a TSA director, saying, "A TSA policy and procedure … is fostering illegal flight training by foreign individuals."

*Read the complete letter here

An FAA spokeswoman wouldn't say whether the agency or its safety inspector still had these concerns. 

"They've told me there's no problem," Jacob said, talking about her meetings with the FAA.

She didn't know why the GAO report to Congress and what she was told were different.

"I don't know the answer to that," Jacob said. "They should be asked that question and their feet held to the fire."

Neither the TSA nor Department of Homeland Security would comment on camera for this story. A spokesman said they're "not being allowed to do many interviews these days."

A statement responding to the report to Congress said, "TSA conducts background checks for foreign flight school applicants … and vets FAA certified individuals on a continuous basis."

"Either they don't think lightning can strike twice or they have forgotten what happened on 9/11," East County resident Robert Germann said.

Germann lives less than a mile from Gillespie Filed where two years ago, a flight school was shut down and its owners indicted for falsifying documents so they could train those here illegally.

Some of what the federal investigation found still remains hidden from the public.

According to the GAO report to Congress, "The Department of Homeland Security deemed some of the information … sensitive security information, which must be protected from public disclosure."

"It seems nobody wants to take ownership of this," Jacob said. "Everybody is passing the buck. Everybody is pointing fingers to someone else and that's not a way to solve a problem."

On Tuesday, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors will consider whether or not to support a federal bill calling for more scrutiny of foreign nationals looking for flight training in the U.S.

Jacob proposed the measure.


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