Alexandria, Virginia — Holiday travelers could receive enhanced pat-downs at the hands of Transportation Security Administration agents in the next few days, but TSA failed to enforce a key foreign pilot screening process that could have prevented the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
For several months in 2010, TSA and Department of Defense contractor Mantech International Corp. failed to enforce the Alien Flight Student Program, which performs threat assessments and background checks on about 35,000 non-citizens learning to fly every year.
“This hasn’t come back to bite us yet, but it only has to be one time,” said one source with direct knowledge of the program.
Another said of the broken screening program, “it was appalling. (Mantech was) hemorrhaging staff like crazy, and it kept getting worse and worse.”
That assessment was confirmed by other sources, all requesting anonymity because they feared their ties to the defense industry and Department of Homeland Security could be jeopardized.
Between 2004, when TSA acquired the program from the U.S. Department of Justice, and 2010, the program employed 15 to 35 contractors, who processed the background checks. In 2010, however, budget cuts and contracting complications led to layoffs. As few as 10 people were left to process thousands of applications by the time the contract expired last fall.
“It’s simple math. The turnaround time was not long enough to run all the information for an individual,” another source familiar with the operation said. “Some students began training before the congressional mandate (for background checks) was complete.”
The Alien Flight Student Program was developed in the wake of 9/11, when 19 fundamentalist Islamic terrorists crashed commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth plane, United 93, was thought to be headed for the Capitol when passengers tried to retake it. They crashed in a Shanksville, Pa., field.
Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks.
Nine of the hijackers, including all four pilots, attended flight schools in the United States.
To prevent future attacks, Congress ordered the Department of Justice to begin screening foreign-born flight school candidates for criminal backgrounds, using online applications and fingerprinting. TSA took over the program in 2004 and contracted out the approval process to Mantech.
Any non-U.S. citizen hoping to pilot, or even hop in a flight simulator, must submit identifying information, including country of origin and date of birth, as well as a recent photograph and multiple sets of fingerprints. Those are then screened against a number of criminal and Homeland Security databases.
TSA estimates that the program processes 70,000 background checks per year, two for each foreign flyer. Although the process could be turned over in a matter of days, depleted funding for the program led to an unmanageable workload for those performing threat assessments.
“They could do 80 per day, maybe 130 if there were no mistakes” on the applications, the first source said. “At the end of Mantech’s contract, (TSA and Mantech) were assigning 200 cases a day — that’s not possible.”
The large caseload is significant because the congressional requirement includes a timeline for processing claims.
New candidates applying to fly aircraft larger than 12,500 pounds — a passenger aircraft by industry standards — must wait 30 days after submitting all application materials, including fingerprints, to begin flight training. A student learning to fly aircraft below that threshold, however, can begin training immediately after TSA has received materials.
It is up to the TSA to interrupt flight training if the student does not check out. In 2010, program staffers and contractors were buried with applications. Multiple sources said all background checks were completed in full eventually. Some, however, took months to complete, meaning that the students could have finished training by the time they were fully vetted.
“Some of these guys may only need a couple training sessions,” the second source said. “If you approve them and decide to revisit the background check later, there’s no guarantee that they aren’t in a simulator already.”
Sept. 11 ringleader Mohammed Atta enrolled in a Florida flight school on July 6, 2000. He took his first solo flight just 31 days later after near daily flight training and one flight simulator session, according to the FBI’s 9/11 timeline.
“You can go from zero (flight) hours to a multi-engine commercial pilot in as little as six months, if you are a very astute and Einsteinian student,” said Peggy Woods, manager for Florida Flight Training Center in Venice, Fla.
United 93 suicide pilot Ziad Jarrah spent about six months taking flight training at the center from the end of June 2000 to December 2000.
Congress established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which manages TSA, in the panicked aftermath of the attacks, and rapidly expanded its budget and scope. Defense contractors, such as Mantech, grew with DHS.
Mantech took in $2.6 billion in 2010 with half of that money coming from government contracts. It took in $431 million in 2001. Mantech lost the program contract in the fall of 2010, but continues to supply technological and logistical assistance to the defense industry.
Mantech spokeswoman Lauren Kushin declined to discuss the program.
Those familiar with the program said their experience was much better before 2010.
“People did effective work before the budget cuts and the experience with TSA (agents) at the program was very positive,” the second source said.
TSA said in a statement that it is committed to thorough background checks, though an official would not comment on the allegations or the state of the program’s operations today.
“We perform a thorough background check to include terrorism watch-list matching, a criminal history check and an immigration status check,” TSA spokesman Kawika Riley said. “FAA airmen are among the 20 million transportation workers that TSA vets on a daily basis.”
TSA is about to hit its busiest time of the year as the holidays approach. AAA estimates that 42.5 million Americans will travel long distances by car or airplane on Thanksgiving, putting those charged with safeguarding the skies on alert.www.watchdog.org