Cuba’s security tour at Miami airport was routine, TSA official tells dubious House panel

‘You vet an agent from a state sponsor of terrorism (using information) from the state sponsor of terrorism?’

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials say a May tour that Cuban officials took of Miami International Airport (MIA) security areas that drew bipartisan rebukes and national headlines was not out of the ordinary.

Visitors from Cuba’s communist regime received six similar tours of MIA since 2011, including once during ex-President Donald Trump’s administration, TSA Executive Assistant Administrator Melanie Harvey told a U.S. House panel this week.

In return, she said, TSA officials toured Cuban airports 22 times over the same span to ensure better security on both sides of the many flights to the island nation that some 2 million people take yearly.

“The TSA could have done a better job coordinating with the Miami airport and local officials for the most recent engagement with Cuban aviation authorities,” Harvey told the House Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security on Tuesday.

“We did not fully socialize this trip. I’m committed to making sure that does not happen again.”

Harvey added that during a 2018 visit to MIA — the last such visit until the one in May — Cuban officials took a “much more extensive” tour that included stops at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, a TSA equipment-testing facility next door and a Federal Air Marshal Training Center in New Jersey.

Melanie Harvey, TSA Executive Assistant Administrator for Security Operations, said the tour Cuban delegates took of Miami’s airport in May was far smaller in scope than one that occurred in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump. Image via U.S. House Committee on Homeland SEcurity.

The Cuban delegates also received a briefing and demonstration on how the TSA conducts covert tests of its security areas to shore up possible screening deficiencies, including cargo security measures.

“This visit (in May) was nothing out of the norm. It was a routine visit where they wanted to visit Miami because that is the major last point of departure for them,” Harvey said.

U.S. Rep. Shri Thanedar of Michigan, the panel’s ranking Democratic member, asked Harvey if her agency received backlash in 2018 similar to the outrage it saw this year. Harvey said she wasn’t aware of any complaints about the visit six years ago.

Prompted by Thanedar, Harvey said that if the U.S. discontinues Cuban tours of TSA facilities, the same could happen in reverse and likely lead to “cessation of (flights) between the two countries.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Giménez, the panel’s Chair and Miami-Dade County’s immediate past Mayor, said he disagreed with Harvey that blocking Cuba’s access to sensitive airport areas in America would stop air travel there.

“That’s a lifeline to the Cuban regime,” he said. “They need those flights. They want those flights. It supplies them with much-needed revenue, cash, and it kind of keeps them afloat. … Seeing that I’m Cuban, I kind of know what I’m talking about.”

Cuba is one of four countries that the U.S. State Department has designated as state sponsors of terrorism. The others are North Korea, Iran and Syria.

To protect America’s security vulnerabilities from being exposed to potential acts of terror, Harvey said, the TSA submits passports for visiting delegates from Cuba and other countries for background checks by the State and Homeland Security departments.

That arrangement is faulty, Giménez said.

“You vet an agent from a state sponsor of terrorism (using information) from the state sponsor of terrorism,” he said. “That’s how you vet people?”

Harvey said the procedure is the same regardless of what country’s delegates the TSA is hosting.

“We use the passport information submitted by the foreign government to do vetting no matter what country they are from,” she said.

“And you think that’s adequate?” Giménez shot back. “So, we now have direct flights to Iran. We would allow the Iranian government, who we know sponsors terrorism with Hezbollah and Hamas, et cetera? We would allow their folks to come into our facilities to view our procedures, our equipment, into sensitive areas, so that we can have reciprocity? I think that’s insane.”

Giménez said he plans to sponsor legislation to address the issue and expects U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to carry its Senate companion.

Later in the one-hour hearing, U.S. Rep. Laurel Lee of Florida’s 15th Congressional District asked Harvey if she was aware of a July 1 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies about the development of a suspected Chinese spy base near Cuba’s second-largest city.

Harvey said she was not.

Lee noted that the Federal Communications Commission produced a similar report in November 2022. Harvey said she didn’t know about that report either. She reiterated that the tours TSA gives to foreign officials, including those from Cuba, have a “very narrow focus” and are vital to ensure the security and safety of passengers.

Republican Reps. Carlos Giménez and Laurel Lee grilled TSA Executive Assistant Administrator Melanie Harvey about Cuba’s recent tour of Miami International Airport security areas. Both suggested the visit made the U.S. more vulnerable to espionage. Images via U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security.

Condemnation of the most recent tour TSA officials gave Cuban delegates on May 20 spread quickly the day after, when Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava wrote on social media that she was “shocked” to learn about the visit after it happened.

Miami-Dade Aviation Department spokesperson Greg Chin told Florida Politics that the tour happened without the county’s knowledge. Levine Cava’s administration said her office quickly contacted the Department of Homeland Security for answers and to make sure the county was included in “any future decisions regarding access to MIA facilities to foreign government officials.”

The troubling incident occurred on the same day many celebrated Cuban Independence Day to commemorate the country’s separation from Spain and to honor those who have fought to wrest its control from dictators since. Miami-Dade is home to the largest Cuban diaspora in the U.S., with more than 1.2 million Cuban American residents.

The tour in May also happened just under five years after reportedly leaked Cuban intelligence showed that spies at MIA had stolen security codes and other confidential information.

Then-MIA Director Lester Sola, serving under Giménez, downplayed the documents’ credibility. His predecessor, Emilio González, a retired colonel who once worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency, was less convinced of data’s inauthenticity and said they raised concerns, if authentic. Gonzalez’s predecessor, Jose Abreu, agreed, noting that “there are security-sensitive areas in the airport. There’s no question about that.”

CBS News’ “60 Minutes” detailed in April how espionage, including stealing and selling security secrets, is among Cuba’s most lucrative products and that spies working for the country are likely active today in numerous U.S. government agencies.

Two days after the visit, Giménez announced the House would launch an investigation into the matter. He and four other GOP lawmakers — Rubio, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and U.S. Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart and María Elvira Salazar — also penned a joint letter chastising federal administrators who authorized the tour.

“TSA’s stated mission is to ‘protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce,’” the letter said. “Through these actions, you have violated this mission and made America less safe.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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