The head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) conceded the obvious yesterday and told Congress the agency needs to be reformed. His testimony helped underscore AOPA's arguments that barriers to terrorists have to be raised at the federal level. State-mandated pilot background checks would be pointless and a needless expense with the federal system in disarray.
INS Commissioner James Ziglar told a House immigration subcommittee that "obsolete technology and overly bureaucratic and illogical processes" were to blame for the INS fiasco in which notification of student visa approval for two September 11 hijackers arrived at a Florida flight school last week, exactly six months after the attacks. Ziglar said the incident would serve "as a catalyst to accelerate" reforms.
"This is exactly what we said right after the September 11 attacks," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "The problem is not with the flight schools or with general aviation pilots. It is at the federal level, rather than in the individual states, that entry to our country should be guarded." Flight school regulation bills are now pending in the legislatures of seven states (Connecticut, Idaho, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, and South Carolina).
But those state laws would not have prevented the terrorists from obtaining flight training. They had entered the country legally and were not on any terrorist "watch list." Compounding the problem, the INS, CIA, and FBI databases are not interconnected, so information is not currently shared among the federal agencies responsible for identifying potential terrorists.
AOPA has suggested that the federal government circulate a terrorist watch list to all flight schools and that the FAA cross-check all existing and new pilot certificates against such a watch list.