Esper Calls for Review of Foreign Troop Vetting in Wake of Pensacola Shootings

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Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper addresses the Reagan National Defense Forum, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, Calif., Dec. 7, 2019. (DoD/Lisa Ferdinando)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has requested a review of how foreign nationals are vetted as potential security threats before they are admitted to train with the U.S. military, he said on Sunday.

"I asked that we begin a review of what our screening procedures are with regard to foreign nationals coming to the U.S. to train" at military bases such as Pensacola Naval Air Station in the Florida Panhandle, Esper said on "Fox News Sunday."

His remarks come after a Saudi officer trainee killed three sailors Dec. 6 in a Pensacola classroom building and wounded seven more before being fatally shot by a sheriff's deputy.

Currently, more than 5,000 foreign nationals are at bases nationwide training alongside U.S. troops, including more than 850 Saudi nationals, according to CNN.

The foreign nationals are screened by the Departments of State and Homeland Security, as well as the Defense Department, but tighter vetting may be in order, Esper said.

"I want to make sure those procedures are full and sufficient," Esper said.

The FBI has identified the suspect as 21-year-old Royal Saudi Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, who allegedly used a handgun in his shooting rampage.

Esper said it was too soon in the multiple investigations of the incident to determine whether Alshamrani was targeting U.S. service members.

Related: No Plans to Change Foreign Military Training After Pensacola Shooting: Top Generals

"I don't know that yet," Esper said. "I think that's why it's important to allow the investigations to proceed to understand exactly what he was doing and why."

Esper also confirmed that several Saudi friends of Alshamrani on the base were detained for questioning after the shootings on suspicion that they were taking videos at the crime scene.

He said he was told that "one or two" of the suspect's friends were filming at the classroom building

"What's unclear is were they filming it before it began," he said, "Or was it something where they picked up their phones and filmed it once they saw it unfolding."

It could be a "distinction without a difference" on whether the suspect's friends may have had foreknowledge of his intentions, Esper said, but investigators would have to sort that out.

In addition to the possibility of tighter vetting procedures, Esper said he was also ordering up a department-wide review of all base security practices.

"I want to immediately make sure we're taking all necessary precautions appropriate to the particular base to make sure our people are safe and secure,' he said.

While tighter vetting of foreign military training programs in the U.S. may be necessary, their overall value for U.S. national security should not be underestimated, Esper said.

They "build long-term relationships" with allies and partners "that keep us safer," Esper said.

His backing of the foreign training programs echoed support expressed by the service chiefs Saturday in a panel at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in California.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said that curtailing or ending the programs would backfire on the U.S. "The biggest impact would be on our allies and partners and interoperability," he said.

"My biggest concern is that we would walk away from those key relationships and folks that we know we need when we go into combat," Goldfein added.

Officials on Sunday identified the service members killed at Pensacola as Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, of Enterprise, Alabama.; Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia.

In Facebook postings and in accounts to the Pensacola News Journal, Watson's family said that, despite being mortally wounded, he managed to give emergency responders the location of the shooter and had saved lives.

-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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