The Pentagon failed to adequately screen a Saudi military recruit who carried out a deadly 2019 attack at a U.S. military installation in Pensacola, Fla., officials testified on Wednesday.
Garry Reid, director for defense intelligence at the Pentagon, said during a public congressional hearing that a failure to properly screen and share critical information about Saudi military recruits led to the attack, which killed three American service members and wounded eight others.
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In addition to relying too heavily on State Department vetting procedures, the Pentagon found in its review of the incident that gaps in federal law enabled the Saudi terrorist to legally obtain a firearm in the United States, despite not being a citizen or having an immigrant visa.
The attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola triggered a nationwide crackdown on foreign nationals participating in U.S. military programs. Despite security screening of these individuals, it became clear in the wake of the attack that the federal government failed to pick up on clear warning signs, such as the attacker's anti-American social media posts.
"We found that the Department of Defense has been overly reliant on the vetting conducted by the Department of State," Reid told the Senate Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.
"There is insufficient information sharing in place between DoD and the Department of State in that process," he said. "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."
The government-wide security review also found 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."
These loopholes should be closed to prevent another attack, officials said.
Following last year's attack, all Saudi Arabian military students in the United States for training were screened "using new procedures we had recently put in place as part of our personnel vetting transformation initiative," Reid said. Twenty-one Saudis were also ejected from the country for misconduct as the result of an FBI investigation.
Reid said the new vetting procedures "produced only a small number of returns that required additional analysis within the Department of Defense." He added that none of the returns "triggered any remedial action or further investigation by federal authorities relative to the current population."
The Defense Department is currently using these enhanced screening techniques to review the 5,000 or so other foreign military students from more than 150 countries who are currently in the United States.
Continuous screening will also take place under the new security plan.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), a combat veteran and the subcommittee's chair, said in the hearing that more must be done to ensure an attack of this nature does not take place again. While the foreign military exchange programs are vital to building closer global alliances, they cannot come at the risk of American service members' lives, she said.
"The attacker … arrived in the United States in 2017 and harbored anti-U.S. sentiments, which he broadcasted on social media," Ernst said. "All the while he was able to purchase a firearm, access U.S. military installations, and ultimately carry out a deadly attack against Americans. We must do more to protect our military personnel."
Following the hearing, the Defense Department official and members of Congress later participated in a closed-door session to discuss sensitive national security matters relating to the attack.