Lawmakers seek to ground Cuba flights pending security review

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The Hill

Commercial flights to Cuba could begin as soon as this fall, but some lawmakers are seeking to ground service until Congress knows what type of screening equipment is installed at the island’s airports or whether suspected terrorists could use Cuba as a gateway to enter the U.S.

A group of House members — who were denied visas to visit Cuba and assess airport security risks themselves — is backing legislation that would halt air service to Cuba until the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) conducts a thorough investigation of the security protocols at all of Cuba’s 10 international airports.

The measure also would require an agreement that grants TSA agents full access to inspect Cuban airports with direct flights to the U.S. and permits federal air marshals on flights between the U.S. and Cuba.

Bill sponsor John Katko (R-N.Y.) hopes the TSA report will shed light on basic questions like whether Cuban airports screen bags for bombs or hire drug dealers as employees. He said it’s particularly alarming that Congress does not know answers to its questions, considering recent attacks on jetliners have been linked to airline employees.

“You’ve got a potential nightmare on your hands,” Katko, chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security, said at a roundtable with a small group of reporters on Tuesday. “It may turn out there’s nothing to worry about, but we don’t know. And that’s the concern we have.”

Katko says the legislation has the support of leadership and some Democrats, which increases its chances for passage as either a suspender or as part of a larger spending package this fall.

But the bill could face an uphill battle in the Senate, where a committee overwhelmingly approved lifting the travel ban with Cuba, as well as in the Obama administration, which has been pushing to normalize relations with its former Cold War rival.

In February, the Transportation and State departments signed an agreement to reestablish scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba, although traveling to the island for tourism is still prohibited.

The Department of Transportation recently approved eight airlines to start flying to Havana and six airlines to travel to other cities on the island as early as this fall.

“This is coming at breakneck speed,” Katko said.

Under Katko’s bill, air service to Cuba could not take place until the TSA details the country’s airport screening equipment, canine program, security personnel training, airport perimeter security, access controls and employee vetting process.

The TSA would also be required to assess whether a suspected terrorist could use Cuba as a gateway to enter the United States in its report, which would have to be independently audited by the Government Accountability Office.

Katko said Congress has been stonewalled by both the Department of Homeland Security and the Cuban government in seeking answers to its questions.

He worries that opening commercial air travel with Cuba will create new opportunities for terrorists. Katko said fake Cuban passports have been “showing up all over the Middle East.”

“If you think about an American airliner, with an American flag on the tail, you think ISIS doesn’t see that as a great target, a great PR win, if they can get a bomb on a plane?” said Rep. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), a lead sponsor of the legislation, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “And if there is not screening of baggage, and you’ve got people making $5 dollars a day handling the baggage, it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see a scenario where somebody could put a bomb on the plane.”

Katko pointed out Cuba could not benefit from a House-passed Federal Aviation Administration bill allowing the TSA to donate excess screening equipment to foreign airports because of the existing trade embargo.

Supporters of Cuban air travel argue that charter services have been offering flights between the U.S. and Cuba for years without terrorism incidents, and airports already must comply with a set of international standards.

But lawmakers maintain that more than 100 daily commercial flights are a different dynamic than charter flights, while international standards may not be high enough.

“International standards, that doesn’t mean anything to me,” Katko said. “That’s a baseline, it’s not a big hurdle.”

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