National Security

GOP Senator Questions Feds’ Oversight of Foreign Students Attending Flight School

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The attacks of September 11, 2001 opened the nation’s eyes to the devastation possible when terrorists are able to access and fly airplanes. More than 15 years later, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley remains concerned about the Obama administration’s oversight of foreign nationals at U.S. flight schools.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Aviation Administration this week, Grassley voiced concern that foreign nationals seeking to do Americans harm have still been able to learn how to fly planes at U.S. flight schools.

Specifically, Grassley highlighted the October case of Feras M. Freitekh, a Jordanian national who intentionally crashed his plane during a training exercise in East Hartford, Connecticut.

Freitekh was reportedly in the U.S. on a student visa but had never lived at the address he marked down on his flight school application. Freitekh crashed the plane near the Pratt & Whitney factory, which produces aviation parts for the U.S. military and is classified as “critical infrastructure” by the U.S. government.

“Ever since the September 11 terrorist attacks, oversight of flight training by foreign nationals has been an issue of enormous national security importance. Concerns about the potential use of small aircraft in particular have been increasing,” Grassley wrote in his letter, dated Monday, to DHS Sec Jeh Johnson and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

The Iowa lawmaker pointed to a September 2011 Joint Intelligence Bulletin in which DHS and the FBI said “[v]iolent extremists with knowledge of general aviation and access to small planes pose a significant potential threat to the Homeland.” The intelligence agencies added that “Al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates have maintained an interest in obtaining aviation training, particularly on small aircraft, and in recruiting Western individuals for training in Europe or the United States…”

“Numerous troubling incidents over the years have kept these concerns alive,” Grassley wrote.

Those past incidents include a 2008 ABC New report indicating that “[t]housands of foreign student pilots have been able to enroll and obtain pilot licenses from U.S. flight schools, despite tough laws passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks….” and a 2002 case in which a 15-year-old who claimed to support Osama bin Laden crashed a plane into a Florida office building.

Grassley also pointed to the 2010 arrests of “dozens of illegal immigrants who were enrolled at TJ Aviation Flight Academy in Stow, Massachusetts” and Rep. Henry Cuellar’s September 2011 revelation during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing that “several Mexican nationals were discovered receiving flight training in south Texas without the proper visas.”

Given his concerns, Grassley concluded the letter pressing for more information about the administration’s oversight of foreign nationals at U.S. flight schools — including, in part, information about Freitekh’s immigration status, whether foreign nationals on the “No Fly” list are ever allowed to receive flight training, and the types of nonimmigrant visas eligible for flight training.