Pentagon Expanding Database Searches as Part of Foreign Student Vetting

December 19, 2019 4:32 PM
U.S. and international flags representing countries at U.S. Naval War College (NWC) fly during graduation day at NWC in Newport, R.I. Navy photo.

Following the Dec. 6 deadly shooting by a Saudi Arabian aviation student at Naval Air Station Pensacola, the Department of Defense started evaluating ways to revamp the process used to vet international military students selected to attend stateside training.

As part of the reaction to the shooting, DoD background investigators are using an expanded set of automated database searches to determine if any additional foreign military students pose a threat to U.S. installations or personnel, a senior Pentagon official said.

The gunman, Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Ahmed Mohammed Alshamrani, was attending flight school at NAS Pensacola when he killed three U.S. sailors on Dec. 6 and injured several others. Alshamrani was killed in the incident by local law enforcement.

Immediately after the shooting, several politicians called for a new look at the process employed by the Pentagon and State Department to vet members of foreign militaries selected to attend training in the U.S.

Pentagon officials announced today they will start applying the expanded process to vetting all foreign military students attending training in the U.S., Garry Reid, director of Defense Intelligence, said during a media conference call Thursday.

“These efforts will seek to more closely align IMS (international military student) vetting procedures with those we apply to U.S. personnel,” Reid said.

Reid would not provide information about what new information investigators are finding through the ongoing database searches or whether they could have discovered any tips about the gunman before the shooting.

The Saudi gunman was one of more than 5,100 members of foreign militaries from 153 countries currently training in the U.S. These students attend a variety of courses, including flight training, combat weapons systems training, infantry training and professional development courses for officers. Foreign students also attend the U.S. military’s undergraduate- and graduate-level colleges, according to the State Department.

DoD investigators used the automated database searches to learn more about all Saudi military aviation students currently in the U.S. Investigators did not discover any immediate threat posed by any of the Saudi Arabian students, Reid said.

Since the shooting, the Pentagon limited Saudi Arabian students to attending only classroom training. Approximately 175 Saudi Arabian students are at Pensacola, approximately 35 Saudi Arabian students are at NAS Whiting Field and approximately 128 Saudi Arabian students are at NAS Mayport, all in Florida, according to the Navy.

The U.S. military training offered to members of foreign military members is an integral part of U.S. foreign and military policy. The U.S. often links training to the annual sale of billions of dollars worth of military equipment to foreign governments. The training also helps U.S. allies and partner nations increase their interoperability with U.S. military forces, Pentagon officials previously stated.

The automated screening program was something the Pentagon had already developed to use in the vetting process, Reid said. The automated system pulls information from government, commercial and publicly available databases.

The Pentagon is now working to coordinate its automated database search with the vetting performed by State Department investigators before expanding its use to vet all foreign military students seeking to attend training in the U.S, Reid said.

“The intent of this process is to determine if there is any information that could be an indicator of elevated risk that was not previously identified during the IMS screening and approval process,” Reid said.

Ben Werner

Ben Werner

Ben Werner is a staff writer for USNI News. He has worked as a freelance writer in Busan, South Korea, and as a staff writer covering education and publicly traded companies for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Savannah Morning News in Savannah, Ga., and Baltimore Business Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from New York University.

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