Rep. John Katko rips Obama plan to open air travel with Cuba
U.S. Rep. John Katko on Tuesday unleashed stinging criticism of U.S. plans to open air travel with Cuba, suggesting the move could open a back door for overseas terrorists to enter the United States.
Katko, R-Camillus, chaired a Homeland Security subcommittee hearing in which he battled with representatives of President Barack Obama's administration.
Katko demanded to know if Cuban airports will have proper security screening equipment and procedures in place before the start of commercial flights to the United States later this year.
But the hearing quickly turned divisive, and the panel's top Democrat accused Katko and his fellow Republicans of playing politics with the issue.
Homeland Security officials declined to answer many of Katko's questions in a public meeting, saying it would divulge classified information.
Katko said he is concerned because a Feb. 16 accord between U.S. and Cuban officials will eventually allow more than 100 daily roundtrip flights between the two countries.
"As has been the practice of this administration, the deal was signed with minimal consultation or input from Congress," Katko said. "In fact, countless attempts by this committee to attain information about various aspects of the negotiations and requirements to begin regularly scheduled commercial service to Cuba have been stonewalled."
Katko said he had to battle with the Obama administration to produce witnesses at the House transportation security subcommittee hearing he chaired Tuesday.
"This leads me to believe that the administration is either hiding something, or worse, simply negligent of the security concerns associated with this policy," said Katko, a former federal prosecutor in Syracuse.
Katko aggressively questioned Larry Mizell, a representative of the Transportation Security Administration, who declined to say in public whether Cuban airports have explosive trace equipment, body scanners and document verification technology to help thwart potential terrorists.
In an unusual move for a committee known for its collaborative bipartisan approach, Kathleen Rice, D-Long Island, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, criticized Katko for a taking a tone similar to a "criminal inquiry."
"We're not prosecutors anymore," said Rice, who like Katko is a former federal prosecutor for the Justice Department.
"The bottom line is we are trying to get to the bottom of what we consider to be very grave concerns...about the opening of these airports," Katko replied.
"If you take issue with my tone, let me apologize for that," Katko said. "But I do have the interests of our country as the biggest thing at stake to us, and making sure the airlines are safe and the people are safe."
A board of top Homeland Security officials will be required to share intelligence and operations information.
Rice suggested the subcommittee could obtain its answers in a closed-door hearing with the witnesses.
"Let's just take the politics out of this clearly politicized issue and get to the heart of the matter." Rice said.
Katko said he has legitimate concerns, and cited a Washington Post report last month that some refugees from Afghanistan are making Cuba their gateway to the United States or Canada.
The report said Afghans have obtained Cuban visas, which may have been issued in Iran or obtained on the black market.
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