Pentagon: Saudi military students can still enter US despite shooting

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Article Summary
The Defense Department plans to establish new vetting policies for all foreign military students who enter the United States as a result of the fatal shooting of US sailors by a Saudi air force member at a US base in Florida.

Saudi military trainees can still lawfully enter the US for classroom tutoring during a Pentagon security stand-down following a deadly shooting by a foreign student at a naval station in Florida last week, a Defense Department spokesman said today.

The news from Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman comes after Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., asked the Defense Department at a hearing Wednesday to answer whether Saudi students could continue to come to the United States after last week’s shootings, which left three sailors dead and wounded eight.

But Hoffman added that no more foreign students were likely to come to the United States during the review, which defense officials said this week is likely to take five to 10 days. In the meantime, Saudi trainees on the base, including those believed by the FBI to be acquaintances of the alleged shooter, Mohammed Alshamrani, will be restricted to the Pensacola base.

“I don’t have any evidence to suggest that there’s a larger ring or larger conspiracy,” a senior defense official told reporters earlier this week. 

Saudi students are under direction to cooperate with the probe and will have access to food, medicine, an imam and their commanding officer, the Pentagon added in a statement following a press briefing today.

The stand down in operational training will only apply to Saudi students, but the Defense Department plans to establish new vetting policies as part of the dayslong review that will apply to all foreign military students who enter the United States.

 Still, at least some lawmakers are not convinced that the shootings are an isolated incident, even if Saudi Arabia has avoided scrutiny from the president and lawmakers are looking to pass a defense authorization bill agreed upon by House and Senate conferees that was stripped of provisions that would have limited US military support to Riyadh.

“At some point there’s only so much of this that we’re going to be able to take — where the kingdom tells us there’s some quirky part of the royal family that’s off doing some different thing,” Gaetz told Defense Secretary Mark Esper at a hearing Wednesday. “These Saudi students, they’re connected folks when they end up in Pensacola.”

Gaetz had also asked Esper if the shooting would have any impact on the legal status of forces agreement that allows Saudi troops to train in the United States.

The United States has added 14,000 troops to the Middle East since the Donald Trump administration halted waivers for importers of Iranian oil in May. Since then, the Pentagon has linked Iran to attacks on oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf, the shootdown of an American surveillance drone, and September drone and cruise missile strikes on a Saudi oil facility.

"We are all rather comfortable with the force posture we have in place," Rear Adm. William Byrne, a vice director on the Pentagon’s joint staff, said today.

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Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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