Flights from Cuba pose security threat
BY JOSH ROGIN
Oct 17 2016 12:01 am
In pursuing his historic opening of relations with Cuba, President
Barack 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 that there are few body scanners at the Cuban airports and that
those in place are Chinese-made versions for which no reliability data
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-Texas, 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
"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
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
If that's the price of Obama securing his Cuba legacy, it's not worth it.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for The Washington Post.
Source: Flights from Cuba pose security threat - Post and Courier -