Pentagon Launches New System to Screen Enlistees for Foreign Allegiance

This March 27, 2008 photo, shows the Pentagon in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

(CN) – After fighting more than a year in court to defend a rule that delayed noncitizens’ military careers, the Pentagon rolled out a new policy this week that speeds up the process of screening enlistees for “foreign influence.”

The U.S. Department of Defense launched the new Expedited Screening Protocols (ESP) on July 30, overriding a prior directive that blocked noncitizens from starting basic training at the same time as citizens, while their background checks were pending.

“The ESP is a new centralized screening capability that accesses data sources to screen for risks associated with allegiance, foreign influence and foreign preference in an expeditious manner,” Pentagon spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence said by email Thursday.

Under the new protocols, military recruits identified as a “potential risk” for disloyalty will be subject to an extra vetting process that takes 14 to 25 days. The memo enacting the new protocols does not specify if citizenship status will play a role in deciding whether someone poses a risk of “foreign influence.” No military enlistee will be allowed to start basic training until after the extra screening process is complete, according to the Pentagon.

A lawyer representing a proposed class of noncitizen military recruits who sued to block the Pentagon’s former policy of delaying noncitizens’ military careers said he was pleased with the announcement.

“On its face the ESP does not appear to single out [legal permanent residents] (or any immigrant class) for differentiated screening measures,” attorney Peter Wald, of Latham & Watkins, said in an emailed statement Thursday.

Critics denounced the former policy as treating noncitizens as “second-class recruits.” The prior policy, launched in October 2017, was temporarily blocked in November 2018 by a federal judge, who found the Pentagon lacked evidence to support its claim that noncitizens pose a greater security risk than citizens. The Ninth Circuit revived the policy in July, finding the military’s claims about national security risks were “not far-fetched.”

The Department of Defense said the basic training delays were necessary because a 2017 audit revealed major flaws in the screening process for foreign nationals.

The plaintiffs’ legal team argued those flaws were “problems of the government’s own making” that could be fixed by improving the background check system, not indefinitely delaying noncitizens’ military careers. A longer wait to start basic training also means delays in obtaining the benefits of military service, including financial aid for college and an expedited path to U.S. citizenship.

The new protocols announced this week did not rescind the prior policy of delaying basic training for noncitizens. Rather, it caused the old policy to be “held in abeyance.” Following a six-month review of the new screening methods, the Pentagon will decide if the former policy should be “terminated, held in abeyance for an additional period, or reinstated, as appropriate.”

The Department of Defense said the new process helps ensure those with access to military information are not compromised by a foreign power.

“Given the unique and essential role the Armed Forces serve in defense of the nation, there are foreign governments, terrorist groups, and other entities that would benefit from access to military personnel, facilities, and information,” Lawrence, the Pentagon spokeswoman, said. “A prime axis of this threat is the exploitation of foreign ties to co-opt individuals who are in U.S. national security positions.”

Lawrence added the new screening protocols accomplish two goals: providing information necessary to identify risks of foreign allegiance and screening enlistees in a more timely and efficient manner.

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