WASHINGTON — Homeland Security officials need to do a better job performing background checks on students enrolling in flight schools across the country, according to a government report released Wednesday that indicates federal authorities are struggling to close gaps exposed by the terrorists who learned to fly in the United States before striking on Sept. 11, 2001.
The report by the Government Accountability Office also sheds more light on the 2010 federal investigation that led to the arrest of the owner of a Stow flight school whose facility had trained dozens of foreign nationals — including at least eight who, like the school’s owner, were in the United States illegally.
The report was unveiled before a session of a transportation security subpanel of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Committee members from both sides of the aisle expressed alarm over the slow pace of enacting tougher rules at flight schools and the lack of coordination among federal agencies in preventing possible terrorists — either home-grown or in the country illegally — from acquiring flight training.
“Today’s hearing is a sobering reminder that we cannot afford to let down our guard or become complacent about security,” said the committee’s chairman, Representative Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama.
“The GAO’s finding is clear,” he said. “Not all foreign nationals who train to fly inside the United States have been properly vetted.”
He called the GAO’s findings “extremely disturbing.”
The title of the hearing was provocative: “A Decade After 9/11 Could American Flight Schools Still Unknowingly Be Training Terrorists?”
The terrorists who commandeered the four US commercial jetliners on Sept. 11, 2001, including two that took off from Logan International Airport and slammed into the World Trade Center towers, learned to fly at schools in Florida, Minnesota, and Arizona.
Based on its investigation, including a review of the Stow school, the GAO urged the Transportation Security Administration and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to assign responsibility for drafting a road map, with steps and time frames, to improve coordination between the two agencies, both housed under the Department of Homeland Security.
The Massachusetts case exposed the shortcomings of the Alien Flight Student Program in screening out those in the country illegally from taking part in the program, said Stephen Lord, the GAO expert on homeland security and justice issues.
While the GAO report mentioned 25 foreign nationals enrolled at the Stow flight school, an immigration and customs spokesman said there were 34, including 20 who had overstayed their visas and 12 who had crossed into the United States illegally.
Homeland Security officials acknowledged that background checks are, in practice, not made when students enroll in flight programs. Instead, they are usually conducted when the pilots seek their licenses. By that time, the potential harm has been done, according to Representative Bennie G. Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi.
From January 2006 to September 2011, the GAO said, there were 25,599 foreign nationals who applied for pilots’ licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration after completing flight training at US schools. Representatives from both agencies told the committee that progress was already being made to improve their ability to detect the immigration status of those applying for pilots’ licenses. But a review by the GAO showed that not all of those foreign nationals were registered, as required, in the Alien Flight Student Program, which is supposed to vet students for security threats.
Thompson said the government needs to widen its net to include not only foreigners but US citizens with nefarious intent.
“The last individual to fly a plane into a building and kill innocent civilians in this country was not a foreign national or Islamist extremist,” Thompson said. “It was a United States citizen with an extremist and violent ideology regarding the Internal Revenue Service.”
Thompson was referring to the 2010 incident in Texas in which a 53-year-old man flew his plane into a seven-story building housing an IRS office.
Other members were particularly troubled by the admission from Homeland Security officials that despite rules put in place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, people on the government’s no-fly list are not being screened out from enrolling in flight schools.