By Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers questioned Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Wednesday over a new federal program that allows airplane travelers arriving from Abu Dhabi in the Gulf to bypass domestic screening when they land in the United States.
Democratic and Republican members of the Homeland Security Committee of the House of Representatives expressed concern over a so-called preclearance center that opened last month at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates.
U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the committee, asked Johnson whether there was a provision to rescreen travelers who had been identified for advanced screening, known as selectees, once they were on U.S. soil.
"Can you assure this committee that the process TSA has implemented would somehow allow the selectees to be more than just passed through? That once they touched down in the U.S., there would be some kind of rescreening of that individual once they are here?" he asked, referring to the Transportation Security Administration.
"That is something that is important that I intend to look at," replied Johnson, who assumed his post in December and was making his first appearance before the committee.
But Johnson emphasized the value of preclearance sites for securing what happens when a plane is in the air, citing the failed airline bombing attack over Detroit on December 25, 2009.
"I believe it's a homeland security imperative that we improve that security in one way or another" at airports that send flights into the United States, Johnson said. "And I think preclearance is a good way to do that."
In addition to Abu Dhabi, the United States has nine preclearance centers in Canada, four in the Caribbean and two in Ireland, run by agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security.
The centers were set up to prevent terrorism and intercept people before they can board flights to the United States, and also to reduce congestion at major U.S. airports.
The Abu Dhabi center has drawn opposition from airline groups that say it encourages travelers to choose non-American airlines.
The Air Line Pilots Association said no U.S. carrier flies between Abu Dhabi and the United States, so passengers from Asia or Europe could choose that route, rather than book on U.S. airlines, to avoid long customs lines in the United States.
The lawmakers at the hearing cited security.
"There's still a lot of concern about allowing passengers once they get here not to be rechecked while they're in this country," said Democrat Donald Payne of New Jersey, whose district includes Newark's large international airport.
Republican Paul Broun of Georgia took issue with Abu Dhabi preclearance but also took aim at TSA performance.
"We've seen TSA allow people who are on the no-fly list get on airplanes. TSA has not in itself prevented one terrorist attack," Broun said. "I think TSA has been a total failure as the way it's set up now."
The congressman said he looked forward to working with Johnson to reform TSA - or to get rid of it altogether.
Other questions at the hearing ranged from traffic jams at border crossings to disaster relief and staffing choices.
The new secretary presented his priorities, which included cybersecurity, the threat from militants being trained in Syria, border security and improving management and morale.
More than 100 congressional panels have jurisdiction over the department, which was formed after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and employs more than 200,000 people.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)