Fear of flying: GOP lawmakers worry about security gaps at Cuban airports
In pursuing his historic opening of relations with Cuba, President Obama has frequently pushed legal and political boundaries. Now congressional Republicans are up in arms about another such initiative: an airline travel agreement they say exposes the United States to dangerous security gaps at Cuban airports.
Congressional committees charged with overseeing the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration have engaged in a months-long feud with the administration over security vulnerabilities at 10 Cuban airports that have begun direct flights to the United States. The lawmakers say the lapses increase the risk of terrorists, criminals, drugs and spies entering the United States.
The security dogs that can be seen at Cuban airports are “mangy street dogs” that were fraudulently posed as trained animals, the TSA’s top official for the Caribbean, Larry Mizell, told congressional officials behind closed doors in March, according to these officials.
He also told them there are few body scanners at the Cuban airports and that those in place are Chinese-made versions for which no reliability data exists.
When direct commercial flights began in August, federal air marshals were not allowed on them by order of the Cuban government. No TSA personnel can be stationed at the Cuban airports. All of the local airport employees for the U.S. carriers are being hired, vetted and paid by the Cuban regime, lawmakers said, and the United States has not been given information that resulted from their vetting or how it was conducted.
“In an effort to secure Obama’s legacy on Cuba, they rushed to get it done without doing the proper due diligence,” said Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s subcommittee on transportation security. “Our concern is oversight, to make sure what the agency tells us we can verify. There are still a lot of things we don’t know. What we do know is troubling.”
Two TSA officials told me that agency personnel have made several visits to each of the 10 Cuban airports that have been certified as “last points of departure” for direct flights to the United States and that the agency is confident they are safe for Americans to fly to and from. All 10 airports meet the minimum standards for security under U.S. and international law, the officials said.
But the TSA officials declined to comment on any of the vulnerabilities identified by the oversight committees, citing those details as “security sensitive information.” Several congressional officials said that when Mizell, the TSA official, originally told lawmakers and staff about the problems, no claim was made about information sensitivity. But when the committee convened open hearings on the issue, officials refused to repeat the facts in public.
The TSA officials also said the Cuban government had finally agreed to allow federal air marshals on commercial flights to and from Cuba on Sept. 26. The administration has not provided the text of that agreement to Congress because it was still being translated from Spanish to English, the officials said.
In June, a group of lawmakers tried to visit the Cuban airports to review matters for themselves, but the Cuban government denied their visas. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the leader of the would-be delegation, told me that the administration, which he said denied repeated requests for assistance and information, was ultimately responsible for thwarting congressional oversight.
“It is my responsibility to ensure that any administration puts the safety and security of the American people above all else,” McCaul said. “Like with the Iran deal and so many other times, the Obama administration prioritizes legacy building at the expense of national security.”
Only days after the lawmakers were denied visas, NBA basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal was granted a visa to visit Cuba as part of a State Department cultural exchange program.
The congressional Republicans sounding the alarm about the Cuban airports also oppose Obama’s overall Cuba policy and doubt that thawing relations with the government of Cuban President Raúl Castro will encourage reform there. That debate likely won’t be resolved for many years, but when it comes to airport security, they certainly have a point.
“Cuba remains a state sponsor of terrorism that is allied with some of the most despicable regimes in the world, from Iran to North Korea, and I can’t comprehend how this administration has allowed commercial flights to Cuba without the proper vetting and security procedures in place at each of the Cuban airports,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told me.
The security situation at Cuban airports is an open invitation for any bad actor who wishes to do harm to the United States to try to board a flight to the United States with whatever dangerous contraband they can carry. If that’s the price of Obama securing his Cuba legacy, it’s not worth it.
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