Garry Reid

Opening Statement to a Congressional Committee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on International Military Student Vetting

delivered 4 March 2020, Washington, D.C.

Audio mp3 of Address       Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

Thank you, Chairman Ernst and Ranking Member Peters, Senator Scott, other members that may be joining us. We appreciate the opportunity to testify today and address your questions regarding a review of international military student screening and vetting procedures.

The tragic loss of life that occurred at Pensacola Naval Air Station on December 6th, 2019 will never fade from our memories. Three young and vibrant U.S. Navy sailors, Ensign Caleb Watson, Airman Cameron Walters, and Airman Mo Haitham were tragically taken from us, their families, and their loved ones, paying the ultimate sacrifice to save others while -- by heroically confronting their attacker.

Three of the eight wounded were first responders from the Naval Security Forces and the Escambia County Sheriff's Office. Their brave actions to get control of the situation within 15 minutes of the initial gunfire saved many more from the heavily armed shooter.

We are forever indebted to our fallen comrades and those that took swift action to protect others from what was later determined by the U.S. Department of Justice as an act of terrorism.

We greatly appreciate the outstanding work of our federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. It was the great partnership between Naval Security Forces Pensacola and the Escambia County Sheriff's Office that enabled such a swift and effective response to this attack, saving countless lives.

In response to the attack, the Department of Defense immediately implemented a safety and security stand down. The Secretary of Defense directed my office to take immediate steps in two areas: one, to strengthen the vetting process for international military students immediately; and two, to conduct a comprehensive review of the policies and procedures in place for screening foreign students and granting them access to our bases.

Screenshot of 2024 Government Accountability Office analysis of Defense Security Cooperation Agency data highlighting U.S. Government programmatic procedures and findings for the vetting of international military students pursuant to the Naval Air Station Pensacola terrorist attack.

I'm here today to brief you on the results of this work, and, as you already mentioned, Madam Chair, a follow-up in a closed session to talk about some of the national security details.

With regard to the first task, we screened all current Saudi Arabian military students immediately using new procedures that we had recently put in place as part of our personnel vetting transformation initiative which, as you have been previously briefed, we are building towards a continuous vetting process that relies on automated data record searches as a supplement to the investigative process. We put this process into place for the -- the international military students, and it stays in place today.

We screened all of the Saudi students, and we're continuing to work through the full population of roughly 5,000 current IMS [International Military Students]. These automated searches look at intelligence community-derived data sets that include government data, commercial data, and publicly available data.

The results of these checks are analyzed by trained security experts and analysts and used as a basis for determination if further investigative action could be required. In this case, the review produced only a small number of returns that required additional analysis within the Department of Defense but none that triggered any remedial action or further investigation by federal authorities relative to the current population.

It should be noted, however, that the perpetrator of the attack and several of those associated with the perpetrator were not subjected to this review because they were already subjects to the ongoing FBI investigation, and they were examined more thoroughly through that process. And as you may have been briefed, that resulted ultimately in the removal of 21 Saudi Arabian military officers from training in the U.S. for misconduct, however not related to the December 6th attack.

Moving onto the policy review, we found that the Department of Defense is -- has been overly reliant on the vetting conducted by the Department of State as part of their assessment of eligibility for the visa and that there is insufficient information sharing in place between DOD and the Department of State in that process.

We also found that DOD programs meant to detect and mitigate events such as the Pensacola attack did not cover international military students -- for instance, our insider threat programs. We learned that policies for international military student possession of firearms varied at the installation level and that, at the federal level, there are ways to bypass firearms restrictions for non-immigrant visa holders.

We are well underway to implement the six recommendations derived from 21 findings contained in the report. Additional screening and vetting measures are already in effect for all current and future [inter]national military students. The Secretary has issued new policies related to access credentials and the possession of privately owned firearms and ammunition for our international military students. We will build on this with additional changes that reach across the entire student populations and foreign affiliate landscape within the Department of Defense.

To implement these recommendations, I have established a vetting and security review improvement integration group, co-chaired with General Hooper's office and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. We have four subordinate working groups going through each of these recommendations and findings in detail to implement the full set of proposals and ideas. We'll be happy to provide you these details in the closed session.

In closing, it is important to note that this work is not singularly focused on the tragic events that occurred at Pensacola. Protecting our personnel and our military bases is a top priority for Secretary Esper. Across the Department, we are actively reinforcing our insider threat programs, improving base security, and strengthening our counterintelligence posture.

Within the federal government, we are in the midst of the most significant reform of the background investigation process in decades, adopting new technologies and improving our awareness of personal security threats.

We appreciate all the congressional support we have received over the past several years to provide us the resources and authorities for the full range of DOD security, counterintelligence, law enforcement, and insider threat programs. It is this ongoing work that enabled us to quickly adapt the international military student vetting process. We will continue to modernize this enterprise for all trusted personnel that live, work, and do business on Department of Defense installations around the world.

Thank you again, and -- for interest in these matters, and I look forward to your questions.

See also: Transcript of Entire Proceedings

And also: Transcript of 17 Jan 2020 DOD Background Briefing on International Military Student Review

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