Airport employees thought to have possible terrorist ties have now been vetted

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is setting the record straight on our series of reports from last month about dozens of private airline employees having possible terrorist ties.

At a press conference with Senate Democrats announcing three new proposed amendments to the FAA Re-authorization Act of 2016, Johnson told Washington Bureau reporter George Colli that none of the employees flagged in last year’s Homeland Security Inspector General Report are a threat.

“It’s not that they’re suspected terrorists. It’s that they hadn’t been vetted through all available databases,” said Johnson. “We have since corrected that problem and the cases have been resolved.”

When asked in a follow-up by Colli if there is anything the department is doing now to strengthen the vetting of airline employees, Johnson said “we’re doing a better job of consulting all of the right databases when it comes to airport security and a host of other things.”

Our Washington Bureau reported exclusively last month which airports the 73 employees worked after receiving documents through a Freedom of Information Act request. It included six employees at the Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle, four at Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, two at Logan Airport in Boston and one each at Orlando International, Orlando-Sanford and Memphis International airports.

Despite the Homeland Security Secretaries assurances, lawmakers are not completely satisfied.

Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), who is Chair of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee, said better cooperation between agencies in the United States and with allies abroad is needed to make sure the wrong people are not gaining secured access to airports.

“We need to make sure there are proper information sharing and background checks on all individuals working at our airports,” said Ayotte.

Senator Maria Cantwell also spoke about better information sharing on employees, especially overseas at airports which fly directly into the United States.

“We have to work on more collaborative efforts in those overseas airports so U.S. citizens can feel safe when they are traveling,” said Cantwell.

Cantwell and Ayotte are co-sponsors of a bill, The Airport Security and Oversight Act, that will strengthen airport employee vetting.

Senator Bill Nelson, who co-chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said more needs to be done in terms of screening what employees are bringing into secured areas of airports following a gun-running scheme by employees at the Atlanta airport.

At a hearing on Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Nelson asked TSA Administrator Robert Neffenger why only three airports nationwide require all employees to go through security prior to starting their work days.

“Atlanta, Miami, Orlando. What about the other 297 airports nationwide?” Nelson asked.

Neffenger said the TSA itself has “increased the inspection of employees five-fold in the last five months”, but agreed with Nelson that more can be done. He said he’s asked all airports to provide detailed vulnerability report from all of the airports in the country and expects the answers by the end of the month.

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