Thune on Recent Terror Attacks, Transportation Security, and TSA Hearing Tomorrow

April 5, 2016

U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, spoke on the Senate floor on the recent terror attacks in Brussels and Istanbul by ISIS and the committee's hearing on transportation security in light of the attacks. The Transportation Security Administration Administrator Peter Neffenger will testify at the hearing.

Sen. Thune also spoke on S. 2361, the Airport Security Enhancement and Oversight Act, a bill that Thune and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) sponsored to tighten vetting procedures for airport workers. The bill was approved by the committee in December 2015.

Mr. President, I rise today to address last month’s tragic terror attacks in Brussels and Istanbul by ISIS. It’s critical for the Senate to consider these significant events as we get back to work on bills enhancing security and setting policies for air transportation.

In Brussels, 35 innocent people, including four Americans, lost their lives in barbaric attacks by ISIS at a subway station and airport terminal. In Istanbul, an ISIS suicide bombing killed four on a central street and left dozens more injured. My thoughts and prayers are with those injured, the families of the victims, and the citizens of Belgium and Turkey.

In the past two years, ISIS has orchestrated 29 attacks on Western targets around the world, killing more than 650 innocent people. A decade ago, the group of violent jihadists behind ISIS fit a fairly conventional definition of a terrorist group. Operating in Iraq, they endeavored to kill Americans, Iraqis, and others working to build a free and democratic nation. Today, however, calling ISIS a mere terrorist group may not fully convey the seriousness of the problem.

ISIS – the so-called Islamic State – has taken control of a significant amount of territory in Iraq and Syria. Within this territory, ISIS has established a self-proclaimed capital city and effective sovereignty over other populated urban centers. It collects taxes, operates and profits from oil well operations, controls banking, and rules over substantial agricultural acreage. These operations help fund and sustain not only ISIS’s armed fighters but also the group’s attempt to build actual institutions that spread its message of hate. ISIS has, unfortunately, enjoyed considerable success communicating and spreading its distorted vision of a grand Islamic caliphate claiming authority over all Muslims.

Branches of ISIS, trying to replicate what has happened in Syria and Iraq, have taken root elsewhere and carried out operations in destabilized areas including Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and Yemen. A recent report estimated that as many as 31,000 ISIS adherents have traveled from 86 countries to join the organization in Iraq and Syria. More than 5,000 of these recruits have come from Western Europe and 150 from the United States.  

In addition to those Americans who have actually traveled abroad, researchers at George Washington University estimated in December that there are 900 active investigations of ISIS sympathizers here in the United States. Let me repeat that: 900 investigations of ISIS sympathizers here in our nation. And this doesn’t include those who have been radicalized without noticeable warning, like the couple in San Bernardino who weren’t known to authorities before they killed 14 in a shooting attack last December.

Over the past few years, ISIS’s reach has expanded dramatically and claims that our current policies have contained the organization and its dangerous message are both false and reckless. We have had some successes in targeting senior ISIS officials but – as we saw in Brussels, San Bernardino, and elsewhere – those efforts have not lessened the threat posed by a terrorist state that is successfully propagating its ideology all over the world. So what can we do to protect against the threat posed by ISIS? Here are three things.

First, we need a president who is committed to forming a robust coalition to destroy ISIS abroad. Real American leadership against ISIS must be manifested in sustained engagement against the enemy. We need an administration intent on eliminating the group’s sources of income and its control of territory, which facilitates an illusion of legitimacy for its followers. Incremental progress is not enough. Indeed, the Washington Post reported last week that some terrorism experts believe pressure on the group’s finances could make ISIS more dangerous and unpredictable until it is defeated.

Second, we need to control our borders. We need to know who is coming in and out of our country and why. This includes screening travelers for ties to ISIS and its sympathizers. One of the greatest threats facing Europe is citizens who leave their homes to fight for ISIS and then return to recruit or conduct operations in their communities. We also face this threat from European ISIS fighters, the return of American citizens who have fought for ISIS, and agents of ISIS posing as war refugees. Although we’ve passed bipartisan legislation to tighten some screening requirements, we need the administration to enforce the law rather than attempt to undermine or work around it.

Third, as a final line of defense, we need to better secure the homeland. We must make sure the intelligence community, law enforcement, and homeland security officials have the tools they need to deter attacks and stop plots before they’re launched. This includes the need for constant reassessment of our vulnerabilities so that we stay ahead of threats.

Tomorrow, I will chair a hearing at the Commerce Committee with Transportation Security Administration Administrator Peter Neffenger, who happened to be in Brussels during the March 22 attacks. While we mainly see and know the Transportation Security Administration – or TSA – as the agency behind airport screening of passengers and baggage, the organization actually has a much broader charge. TSA is the designated federal agency for all transportation security matters. As we know from independent covert testing that exposed TSA failures a year ago, TSA still has work to do to improve screening at airports. But TSA also needs to focus on securing transportation by train, bus, pipelines, and through our ports. The diversity of the targets ISIS selected in its most recent attacks – a subway station, an unsecured airport terminal, and a busy street – underscores the challenge of protecting our citizens from an enemy seeking the path of least resistance to maximize carnage. To stay ahead of this danger, security officials at TSA and other agencies need to be looking at potential threats before ISIS does. Congress also has a role in helping security officials stay ahead of ISIS.

Aided by congressional oversight and government watchdogs, the Commerce Committee has already approved bipartisan legislation Sen. Bill Nelson and I have offered to address airport security vulnerabilities. Our bill is cosponsored by the Homeland Security Committee’s chair and ranking member, Senators Johnson and Carper. Among other provisions, our legislation improves the vetting process for airport workers seeking or holding a security credential that grants access to restricted sections of an airport.

Over the past few weeks, a number of badged aviation industry workers have been caught in the act helping criminal organizations. On March 18, a flight attendant abandoned a suitcase with 68 pounds of cocaine after she was confronted by airport security officials in California. In Florida on March 26, an airline gate agent was arrested with a backpack containing $282,400 in cash that he intended to hand off to an associate. According to press reports, the agent told authorities that the money was connected to illegal activity but knew few other details.

Mr. President, some of the perpetrators in the deadly attacks in Brussels were previously known to authorities as criminals, but not terrorists. As we work to address concerns about an insider threat scenario where an aviation worker helps terrorists, criminals who have broken laws for their own financial gain and those with histories of violence are a good place to start. Ensuring that airport workers with security credentials are trustworthy is especially important considering that ISIS, in October, killed 224 on a Russian flight leaving Egypt. Many experts believe this attack had help from an aviation employee.

In S. 2361, the Airport Security Enhancement and Oversight Act, Sen. Nelson and I not only propose tightening vetting procedures for workers who need a security credential but we also expand the list of criminal convictions that disqualifies an applicant from holding one. At present, even applicants convicted for embezzlement, racketeering, perjury, robbery, sabotage, immigration law violations, and assault with a deadly weapon can still obtain an airport security badge granting access to restricted areas. Our bill closes this loophole while updating airport security rules, expanding random inspections of airport workers, and requiring a review of airport perimeter security.

The Commerce Committee has also approved another TSA-related bill – H.R. 2843, the TSA PreCheck Expansion Act. This bill would expand participation in the TSA PreCheck application program by developing private sector partnerships and capabilities to vet and enroll more individuals.

As a result, more passengers would be vetted before they even arrived at the airport and receive expedited screening. This would get passengers through security checkpoints more quickly to ensure that they don’t pose the kind of easy target that ISIS suicide bombers found at the Brussels airport.

Historically, this body has passed aviation security enhancements separate from a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. While I still prefer this separate approach and believe the Senate should pass our consensus security legislation without delay, I will pursue every option to enact these improvements and will vigorously oppose any effort to water down the security enhancements that passed the Commerce Committee.

As we look at ISIS and consider necessary steps to stop attacks, let’s remember our recent history of fighting terrorism. In the 1990s, our nation not only fell behind on intelligence and airport security, but we did not act with force against al-Qaeda’s enclaves in Afghanistan. This was true even after we recognized a significant threat following attacks on our embassies in East Africa and on the USS Cole in Yemen. Only after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon did our nation pursue a strong military response and adopt significant reforms to enhance our homeland security.

Like al-Qaeda, ISIS is now a significant danger. While we are doing more to push our homeland security and intelligence agencies to meet current and future threats, we are unwise to allow this enemy time and multiple chances to inflict mass casualties. As a legislative body, we have already passed legislation closing a border security vulnerability in our visa-waiver program and have an opportunity in the bill Sen. Nelson and I have offered to guard against an insider threat at airports. As lawmakers, we are going in the right direction.

Our responsibility to the people we represent, however, does not end there. Until this administration or its successor changes the facts on the ground, we also have an obligation:

  • to speak about the continued threat of ISIS, especially when the administration downplays the need for a more aggressive response;
  • to continue discussing the genocide of Christians and other religious groups in areas under ISIS control; and
  • to scrutinize executive actions and conduct rigorous oversight of administration initiatives that pose risks to our homeland.

Mr. President, if we can’t do this, we have learned very little. I yield the floor.