A shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola by a Saudi military student has led Defense Secretary Mark Esper to review the procedures for vetting foreign nationals and security on military installations.
The shooting was the third attack on a military installation this week.
In an interview at the Reagan National Defense Forum at the Reagan Presidential Library, Esper offered his condolences and said he is “considering several steps to secure the safety of our military installations and the safety of our service members and their families.”
“Yesterday, I directed that we look at our security precautions across the services and all of our installations and bases and facilities to make sure that [we’ve] got the appropriate degree of security to protect our service members and their families and our communities,” Esper stated. “At the same time, I also directed that we look at our vetting procedures within DoD for all the many foreign nationals that come, for good reason, to our country to train,” he continued. “We need to relook [at] all that.”
After the attack, several members of Congress said the attack demanded stricter screening of the hundreds of foreign nationals who travel to the U.S. every year for military training.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) called for a “full review” of programs that train members of allied militaries on American soil.
On Twitter, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) indicated that he has questions about possible gaps in the “extensive security & suitability vetting” that foreign military trainees must undergo. “Today’s tragic attack has exposed some serious flaw in that process which must be discovered & corrected,” Rubio tweeted.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), whose Congressional district includes Pensacola, acknowledged there are benefits to the training, including ensuring that military partners abroad are familiar with American systems and officers. “Saudi Arabia has long sent people to northwest Florida for this purpose,” Gaetz said. “Many of them have gone on to work right alongside our warfighters in the Middle East and around the world.”
The Department of Defense has trained members of allied foreign militaries for decades. There are approximately 5,181 foreign students from 153 countries currently in the U.S. for military training.
These students learn to operate and maintain the military hardware that their governments buy from the U.S. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the largest purchaser of American military hardware, is one of these nations.
The U.S. is currently host to 852 Saudi nationals training under the security cooperation agreement, according to Chris Garver, a Pentagon spokesman. Saudis have trained at N.A.S. Pensacola since 1995.
Other nations that have sent students to Pensacola for military training include Kenya, Nigeria, Togo, India, Oman, Tunisia, Fiji, Haiti, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius and the Philippines, according to a State Department report on foreign military training.
Foreign military trainees are thoroughly vetted before being allowed to participate in the program. U.S. embassy personnel in the trainee’s home country screen databases for evidence of drug trafficking, terrorist activity, corruption or other criminal conduct.
The Pentagon’s Security Assistance Management Manual states that if a potential student’s “reputable character or physical condition cannot be validated, the individual must not be approved for training.” Individuals who do not pass the screening are barred from receiving the travel orders necessary to enter the U.S.
The gunman used a locally purchased Glock 45 9-millimeter handgun with an extended magazine and had four to six other magazines in his possession, according to someone with knowledge of the investigation.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to answer how the gunman obtained the handgun. “Non-immigrant aliens” admitted to the U.S. for a specific period of time are generally banned from possessing firearms, although there are exceptions for members of “a friendly foreign government entering the United States on official law enforcement business,” according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The ability to possess a firearm on a military base is tightly restricted. Gun possession is highly regulated and only members of the military police are able to bring a loaded weapon onto base. It was not immediately clear how the shooter was able to take a gun into the classroom.