Security Concerns Remain on Commercial Flights to Cuba

Friday, September 2, 2016
From The Auburn Citizen:

Security concerns remain as U.S. commercial flights to Cuba resume

The first U.S. commercial flight to Cuba in more than 50 years arrived in Cuba Wednesday, but U.S. Rep. John Katko says he continues to have concerns about Cuban airport security and whether the island nation has the resources to properly screen passengers.

Katko, who chairs the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security, said Cuba and the Transportation Security Administration haven't publicly disclosed important details about airport security, including whether the Cubans have body scanners in all airports, what canine operations exist at these facilities and if the scanning equipment works. 

"They haven't told us whether or not there have been any inspections done," Katko, R-Camillus, said during an editorial board meeting Tuesday with The Citizen. "They haven't told us anything."

In May, Katko chaired a subcommittee hearing on the agreement reached between the United States and Cuba to resume commercial air travel. He invited officials from the Department of Homeland Security and TSA to testify on the state of Cuba's airport security.

However, the officials declined to publicly discuss any information about Cuba's airport security equipment, including whether there were body scanners, canine teams and explosive trace detection systems available at these airports.

A TSA representative said that information was considered sensitive and secure, so it couldn't be disclosed in a public setting.

One month later, Katko and other members of Congress planned a trip to Cuba to inspect the airports themselves. But the Cuban government didn't issue visas so the congressional delegation could enter the country.

Katko introduced a bill in July that would place a moratorium on all commercial flights between Cuba and the United States until the TSA can verify whether Cuban airports have the necessary security equipment in place.

There are other concerns. Katko said Tuesday that the only people who will be allowed to work at Cuban airports are "communist government employees." All of the employees, from the clerk working at a JetBlue counter to baggage handlers, will be Cuban government workers. 

"We have no idea whether they're screened," he said. "We have no idea whether they checked to see if any of these employees have any animus to the United States. We have no idea whether they've been trained, whether they allow criminals to work there. We don't know anything because they haven't told us, and they won't tell us."

Katko added that you won't see any TSA employees in Cuban airports. There may be a TSA employee who's embedded at the U.S. embassy, he said. But there won't be anyone based at the airport. 

"That's the best we're going to have," he said. "That's pretty scary."

Resuming commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba is a "legacy issue" for President Barack Obama, Katko said. He believes that's why the administration is pushing forward with the flights only months after reaching the agreement.

Obama, who is serving the final year of his second term in office, leaves the White House in January.

"I think it's insane that we don't take our time and do this," Katko said. "If they were so open about it and they were so unconcerned about it, why did they not let us go down there?" 

While Katko has many concerns about the flights and Cuban airport security, he's not opposed to resuming relations. But he noted that Cuba was listed as a state sponsor of terrorism up until last year.

"You've got to understand we've had 60 years of complete animosity with them and just flicking a switch overnight is dangerous," he said.