Piling security concerns atop their political complaints, House Republicans say initiating commercial air service from Cuba is a disaster waiting to happen, and accused the Obama administration of fast-walking flights to shore up the president’s legacy.
Obama administration officials publicly insist TSA has thoroughly scrutinized the 10 Cuban airports where flights may soon begin, ensuring that they meet the highest security rules laid out by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. body.
But Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) says administration officials have told a different story behind closed doors, including warnings about outdated screening equipment, “mangy street dogs” on canine teams and insufficient vetting practices for aviation workers.
“The administration’s lack of transparency on this issue is unacceptable and leads me to believe that the administration is either hiding something, or worse: simply negligent of the security concerns associated with this policy,” Katko said during a House Homeland Security hearing Tuesday. “The picture officials of TSA paint of the security situation at Cuba’s airports is indeed bleak.”
The congressman, who serves as head of the House Homeland Security subcommittee that handles transportation issues, pressed TSA witness Larry Mizell to reiterate worries he expressed privately. But Mizell declined to publicly elaborate, saying the information was classified as sensitive and that his opinion of Cuba’s aviation security procedures has improved over time.
“The concerns I had that I shared with you was over a five-year period. Certainly I had concerns at the beginning which I don’t have now,” Mizell said. “Right now, the government of Cuba airports that have been assessed and inspected by the inspectors meet ICAO standards.”
Mizell would not say, though, whether he personally believes security is sufficient at Cuban airports.
“The concerns I have are very minor compared to what we were looking at five years ago,” he said.
Katko said that it was only under threat of subpoena that the Homeland Security Department would allow Mizell to appear before the committee.
“Even then,” the congressman said in a statement after the hearing, “the administration failed to allow the witness to openly testify about security concerns that he had previously stated to the committee.”
Katko claims bomb-sniffing dogs at Cuban airports are “poorly trained at best,” that there is no equipment for detecting trace explosives and that only one of the airports in question uses full body scanners.
To boot, “these scanners are Chinese-made,” he said. “We have no idea whether they work at all, or how they work, or how well they work.”
House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said the administration’s plans to open commercial air service to and from Cuba are being “unnecessarily rushed.” The Department of Transportation is evaluating which airlines will receive service to which airports, a process that is expected to be completed in time to inaugurate service in fall.
“There are serious security concerns here that seem to be taking a backseat to a legacy-building effort,” McCaul said. “So far I remain entirely unconvinced the administration has done its due diligence. While the Obama administration may be willing to put the security of Americans at risk to appease a dictator … the United States Congress will not.”
Once commercial service begins, TSA will continue to inspect the security of flights out of Cuba and has the power to suspend service entirely or force emergency security measures, Seth Stodder, a DHS assistant secretary, told the panel.
Besides working to finalize an agreement with Cuba for the use of Federal Air Marshals, Stodder said DHS runs passenger information through the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database; foreign nationals are only allowed to fly to the United States if they have valid visas or permission through the Visa Waiver Program.
“All of the security and enforcement requirements in place for international flights to the United States will be applied with equal force to Cuba flights,” Stodder said. “Indeed, these measures are already in place with regard to the charter flights that have for many years offered service between our two countries.”
Paul Fujimura, assistant administrator for the Office of Global Strategies within DHS, said TSA’s team of about 150 international inspectors uses a standardized assessment to size up aviation security at all airports with direct flights to the United States.
“They follow a very clearly articulated job aid … it’s a very regulated process that we operate around the world,” he said. “I would be very comfortable flying from Cuba myself. They meet international standards.