Pentagon faces internal questions about program to screen recruits with foreign ties, emails show
A Pentagon program designed to screen potential recruits with foreign ties, including green-card holders and some U.S. citizens, has prompted questions from military officials about whether it will have detrimental effects on the services, according to emails and documents obtained by The Washington Post.
Defense officials touted the program as a way to speed up vetting of recruits who have what the Pentagon considers “foreign nexus” risks. The process could be completed “in a matter of days or . . . in a few weeks, as compared to months and years” required under traditional background checks, according to one Defense Department memo.
The program, which was tested by the Army last summer but has not been implemented, would rely on mining several government databases for information.
But the plan also may come with complications, according to emails obtained by The Post. That would be a concern for a military that has long sought to attract immigrants to meet its recruiting goals in part by promoting the possibility of U.S. citizenship.
Discussions about the program began in earnest after a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in November ordering the Pentagon to begin sending a backlog of thousands of green-card recruits to initial training. The order came after two prospective recruits — one born in China and interested in joining the Navy and one originally from Jamaica who planned to join the Air Force — sued the Pentagon, arguing that months-long delays in screening had caused them harm.
The two men were among thousands who were left in limbo after the Trump administration, citing security concerns, adopted a policy in October 2017 that called for green-card holders to submit to more stringent background checks before they could go to boot camp. That was in addition to standard requirements for green-card applicants, such as biometrics screening.
The program would need approval in court to overcome the injunction. But internally, some defense officials have expressed concern that it also will create some delays.
Russ Beland, a senior civilian official in the Navy Department, said in a Feb. 27 email obtained by The Post that the estimates officials were using to determine which recruits needed additional screening “may be far too low.” After assessing its pool of recruits waiting to go to initial training, the Navy determined that “somewhere between a third and half” could require new screening, he wrote.
“I recognize there are risks from inadequate screening, but there are also risks from gapped billets,” Beland said, using military parlance for empty slots in training.
In response, Lernes Hebert, a senior defense official overseeing personnel issues, said he was committed to working with the Navy Department on exceptions to the policy “if class seats are at risk of going vacant.” In that case, he wrote, the Pentagon would require tracking recruits who are identified for additional screening to be completed “as soon as possible” while they make their way through initial stages of training.
Such exceptions would be rare, Hebert predicted, and would require Pentagon approval.
Beland said he had concerns about that, too. By the time a recruiting command became aware of concerns about a recruit, it could be too late, he wrote. If every case must go up to that level at the Pentagon, he added, it “does not sound workable to me if we encounter widespread delays.”
Beland, in an email, said that he could not comment on the messages because the policy is “in a pre-decisional state.”
Hebert referred comment to the Pentagon’s public affairs office.
Air Force Lt. Col. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said that she was unable to address questions but that the Defense Department needs “every qualified patriot who is willing and able to serve.” As of May 2018, about 19,800 noncitizens were among the nation’s 1.2 million active-duty service members.
The Trump administration’s new restrictions on service members with foreign ties also has included the end of a program begun in 2008 to attract foreign recruits with key medical and language skills. That effort, known as the Military Accessions Vital to National Interests (MAVNI) program, offered a path to citizenship but ended in 2017 after U.S. officials concluded it was vulnerable to insider threats.
The Pentagon began discharging some service members who joined the military under MAVNI, but suspended the process in 2018. In a lawsuit brought by 17 U.S. service members who became U.S. citizens through MAVNI, lawyers argued during a trial late last year that the Pentagon was treating them differently from other citizens by requiring them to undergo extensive biannual screening.
In January, U.S. District Judge Thomas S. Zilly found in the MAVNI troops’ favor, ruling that the Pentagon had not met its burden of proof to require the screening.
During the trial, Stephanie Miller, a senior Pentagon official involved in recruiting, said the Defense Department Inspector General and intelligence agencies had warned defense officials that “direct threats for espionage” had been identified in the MAVNI program and that “hostile governments” were targeting it.
Under questioning, Miller said that in the program’s nearly 10-year history, one person who attempted to join through MAVNI had been charged in an espionage case. That person had not yet obtained U.S. citizenship or a security clearance. More than 10,000 U.S. troops joined the military through the program.
Miller referred questions to the Pentagon’s public affairs office.
In the other pending case, the American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Latham & Watkins have argued in federal court that obtaining a green card already requires significant screening and that requiring even more is not only discriminatory but also harms the Armed Forces by withholding recruits.
The Justice Department, arguing on behalf of the Pentagon, has countered that researching the background of someone who was not born in the United States can be difficult and that some recruits had falsified information while seeking security clearances. The case could go to trial this year.