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Foreign Flight School Students in U.S. Aren’t All Getting Vetted

American officials aren’t doing background checks on all foreigners who apply to flight schools, more than a decade after al-Qaeda terrorists who helped carry out the Sept. 11 attacks received flight training in the U.S., according to a government investigator.

An unspecified number of the 25,599 foreigners who applied for U.S. pilot licenses between January 2006 and September 2011 weren’t vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, said Stephen M. Lord, a director at the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s auditor, in written testimony for a U.S. House panel today.

Foreigners who weren’t vetted still received training and a license, Lord said at a House Homeland Security subcommittee hearing today on the security gaps. Under a TSA program, foreign nationals seeking U.S. flight training must receive a security threat assessment.

Mohammad Atta, the lead Sept. 11 hijacker, and some of his accomplices received flight training at U.S. schools. Their training raised concern with a Phoenix-based Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who wrote a memo before the attacks that wasn’t heeded by other security officials.

“It is completely unacceptable that a decade after 9-11, GAO has uncovered weaknesses in our security controls that were supposed to be fixed,” said Representative Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican who heads the subcommittee.

Illegal Immigrants

In a March 2010 case, U.S. immigration officials found that a Boston-area flight school owned by an illegal immigrant had trained eight people who were in the country illegally and still passed the TSA background check, Lord said.

Six of those went on to receive some form of pilot’s certification, he said.

The TSA vetting process is “rigorous” and includes checking student applicants’ backgrounds for terrorist and criminal activities and immigration violations, said Kerwin Wilson, a branch manager with TSA’s Office of Security Policy and Industry Engagement.

Still, “TSA concurs with the GAO recommendations on identifying how often and why foreign nationals are not vetted,” he said in a written statement submitted to the panel. The TSA is part of the Homeland Security Department.

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