Pentagon Orders Review of International Student Vetting

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon on Tuesday ordered a broad review of vetting procedures for international students who get training on U.S. military installations and demanded the process be strengthened, in reaction to last week’s deadly shooting at a Pensacola Navy base by a Saudi aviation student.

The memo signed by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist also suspends flight and other operational training for all Saudi Arabian students in U.S. military programs. It follows a decision by the Navy to halt flight training for more than 300 Saudi Arabian students at the Pensacola Naval Air Station and two other bases in Florida.

The FBI confirmed Tuesday that the 21-year-old Saudi Air Force officer who killed three U.S. sailors and injured eight other people at the Pensacola base on Friday legally bought the 9mm Glock pistol he used. Investigators are digging into whether 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani acted alone, amid reports he hosted a party last week where he and others watched videos of mass shootings.

Air Force officers carry the remains of Navy Ensign Joshua Watson on Sunday at Dover Air Force Base, Del. He was killed by a Saudi military student at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida last week. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The incident has raised questions about how well international military students are screened before they attend training at U.S. bases.

Norquist’s memo says the review of the vetting must be completed in 10 days, and the flight restrictions will continue throughout the review and until they are lifted by senior leaders.

“As we reaffirm our commitment to these critical military partnerships, so must we assess the efficacy of our security procedures in light of the tragic loss of life on December 6,” the memo says. “We will make every effort to ensure the safety of all personnel and their families on U.S. military installations.”

Federal officials said the flight restrictions were not triggered because there are indications of any broader problems or conspiracy related to Saudi students or the shooting. They said it was because the shooting suggested some possible vetting problems associated with Saudi Arabia that will be reviewed.

Norquist in the memo directed the defense undersecretary for intelligence to “take immediate steps to strengthen personnel vetting” for international students and to review “policies and procedures for screening foreign students and granting access to our bases.”

He said the United States is working with Saudi officials in response to the shooting.

The Pentagon has said that about 850 Saudi students are in U.S. military training programs today. Federal officials told reporters on Tuesday that they are not sure how many of those would see some type of flight or other restriction, but many will. Overall there are about 5,000 international students in U.S. programs, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to provide details about the review and the memo.

International military students go through screening by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The United States runs background and biometric checks on the students to determine if they are security risks.

The Navy’s more limited flight training restriction for Saudi students was ordered Monday night, according to Commander Clay Doss, a Navy spokesman. He said classroom training is starting again this week, and flight training for other U.S. and international students will resume.

The Navy’s flight restriction affected 140 students at Pensacola Naval Air Station, where the shooting occurred, and 35 at nearby Whiting Field. Another 128 students at Naval Air Station Mayport, on the Atlantic seaboard, also are restricted. Doss said the stand-down is an effort to ensure the safety of students as they recover from the trauma of the shooting.

For the most part, military installation commanders have the authority to set their own security procedures, including base entry screenings and permits to carry guns. There is a baseline level of security that must be met, but commanders can make any of their procedures more stringent if they believe it’s necessary.

Under Defense Department guidelines, commanders can authorize personnel to carry government-issued or personal firearms as long as they have been screened, they meet qualifications, follow specific handling and storage conditions, and receive permission in writing. The permission is usually good for at least 90 days, and must be routinely reviewed to be renewed.

Under Pentagon guidelines released in 2016, personnel participating in official training programs cannot be authorized to carry weapons unless approved by the administrator before the training.

The current security level across all Defense Department facilities is force protection condition Bravo and that status is noted at the entry of all installations, including the Pentagon.

U.S. Northern Command ordered an increase in defense-wide security from condition Alpha to Bravo in May 2015 due to concerns about threats from the Islamic State group. ISIS militants then had a considerable hold on territory in Iraq and Syria and were threatening western targets.

Condition Bravo indicates an increased or more predictable threat of terrorism attack or hostile act, and that it is directed against Defense Department entities or personnel, according to the department. The levels go from Normal to FPCON Delta, which is the highest and applies when a terror attack has occurred or is anticipated.

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