(CNSNews.com) – At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing Wednesday, a top Transportation Security Administration official admitted that federal air marshals are not currently allowed on non-chartered commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba, despite reports to the contrary.
Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) questioned Dr. Huban Gowardia, deputy administrator for the Transportation Security Administration, about a draft agreement between the TSA and the Cuban government which would allow federal air marshals on commercial flights.
Gowardia admitted that the agreement, which was sent to the Cuban government in August, has not yet been signed.
“There was timeline that was produced by the Department of Homeland Security. Do you have that in front of you?” Katko asked Gowardia.
“I just received it, sir,” Gowardia said.
“And accompanying that timeline—and it lists various events happening with Cuba since 2010, various security-related events and what they’ve done in that regard – TSA and Homeland Security. Is that right?” Katko asked.
“Yes, sir,” Gowardia said.
“Okay, and we also received in connection with that an email from the Department of Homeland Security … Now if you look to the third page, in July of 2016, there’s an entry that states that federal air marshal service arrangement approved for chartered flights. Do you see that?” Katko asked.
“Yes, sir, I do,” Gowardia said.
“And so that means that for chartered flights, there’s been an agreement between the federal air marshals and Cuban government to have federal air marshals on some of those flights. Is that correct?” Katko asked.
“Indeed, sir,” Gowardia replied.
“Okay. Now if you go down to August of 2016, the second entry for August of 2016, it says federal air marshals arrangement for commercial service drafted, approved by Department of State and forwarded to Cubans for comment. Do you see that?” Katko asked.
“Yes, sir,” Gowardia responded.
“So for the non-chartered flights in August of 2016, there was a draft sent to the Cuban government. Is that right?” Katko asked.
“Yes sir,” Gowardia replied.
“Okay. Has that Cuban government signed that agreement?” Katko asked.
“Not to date, sir,” Gowardia said.
“Okay, so as of today, are there any federal air marshals allowed on any non-chartered flights between the United States and Cuba?” Katko asked.
“No, sir,” Gowardia replied.
“Okay, now so, there’s another document here ma’am that I read from. It’s an article from August 11th of 2016, and in that article, it states a quote from the TSA, which indicates that there is an agreement between Cuban government and the TSA for federal air marshals. Do you recall that article?” Katko asked.
“Yes, sir. I just received it,” Gowardia said.
“And I believe you spoke about it before, and that’s dated August 11th of 2016, is that right?” Katko asked.
“Yes, sir,” Gowardia replied.
“And I ask that that be entered into the record as well … And in that article, they note a TSA release, which said that there’d be federal air marshals on board select commercial flights. Is that right?” Katko asked.
“Yes, sir,” Gowardia said.
“And isn’t it true that they’re really referring to just the charter flights?” Katko asked.
“Sir, it is important for us to realize that the compromise, the strategy, the exact operations of our federal air marshals is not in the best interest of aviation security. We try to be very careful in allocating our FAMs to flights based on risk, based on threat, and certainly based on agreements,” Gowardia said.
“We will continue to try to expand our FAM’s coverage on all flights out of Cuba, and we have no reason to believe that this will not proceed on scheduled flights at this time. To the best of my knowledge I don’t know that they will resist the ability to place FAMs on scheduled flights,” she added.
“I understand doctor, but if you can give me a direct answer, I’d appreciate it. And the question is simply when you submitted that quote, there was no agreement to have any federal air marshals on non-chartered flights. Is that correct?” Katko asked.
“That is true,” Gowardia responded.
“So you’re referring to the chartered flights. Is that correct?” Katko asked.
“Yes, sir,” Gowardia said.
Katko asked Francis Taylor, under secretary for the Homeland Security Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, to explain “why that decision was changed to allow these flights” to not have any federal marshals on them.
“I would like to defer to Dr. Gowadia to answer that on behalf of the TSA,” Taylor said, adding that he didn’t have an answer to the question.
The first commercial flight between the United States and Cuba in more than a half century landed in Cuba on Aug. 31, according to the Associated Press.
“We do not oppose flights to and from Cuba,” Katko said. “That is not my job. Whether I do agree with it personally or not is not the question.
“My job is to make sure things are as safe as possible, and in this instance, we have General Taylor agreeing with me that federal air marshals are an integral part of the multi-layered security apparatus, and indeed the last line of defense for terrorism and air piracy,” Katko said.
“And we have opened up service to Cuba without having that last line of defense in place, and I think anyone who is in their right mind would tell you that is not a good idea, and that is what I am very concerned about it,” he added.
“And what I’m concerned about as well is that TSA sent out a document in August before the flights started, which indicated to some extent or at least shaded the fact that there is going to be federal air marshals on select commercial flights,” Katko said.
“That gave the misimpression to the public that select commercial flights included the commercial flights, the non-chartered commercial flights, and maybe Americans took solace in that in saying it’s okay going to and from Cuba, but I think that is the type of thing that causes riffs in relationships and trustworthiness between agencies and oversight persons such as myself, and I’m concerned about that going forward,” he said.
“There has been a rush to open up the airports in Cuba. I understand that, but we have to do our due diligence, and not even having federal air marshals allowed on a flight categorically is not a good idea,” Katko said.
“We all know federal air marshals aren’t on every single flight, and that’s part of the risk base. When a bad guy gets on a flight, he knows or doesn’t know whether somebody’s on it. That’s important,” he said.
“When you know there’s nobody on it, that’s a bad thing, and it pains me to bring this up in a public setting, but I do it as an example of why we need more openness and more collaboration instead of obfuscation between the agencies,” Katko added.