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US urged to suspend joint training after naval base shootings

U.S. Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper speaks to members of the press during a joint press conference with Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Oct. 11, 2019. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Nicole Mejia)
December 09, 2019

The Pentagon should temporarily suspend training for foreign fighters after a Saudi air force officer shot and killed trainees last week at a U.S. base in Florida, two Republican lawmakers said. A top U.S. official said the attack might be terrorism.

“We should pause this program,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, whose district includes the Naval Air Station Pensacola, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” broadcast. “We should not be taking new incoming Saudi students until we’re absolutely confident in our vetting process.”

Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina called for a halt during the investigation into the Florida incident. “Saudi Arabia’s an ally, but there’s something really bad here. Fundamentally, we need to slow this program down and re-evaluate,” he said on “Fox Morning Futures.”

A Saudi military student opened fire at the base with a handgun on Friday, killing three men — from Alabama, Florida and Georgia — and wounding several others before he was shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies. Two days earlier, a U.S. Navy sailor shot and killed two people at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii before taking his own life.

U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the FBI is investigating whether the Florida shooter acted alone.

“It appears this may be somebody who was radicalized,” O’Brien said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “It looks from what we’re seeing in the public reports, this looks like something that’s terrorism or something akin to terrorism.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he’s ordered his staff to issue an advisory to make sure adequate safety precautions are taken and he opened a review of screening procedures for foreign nationals coming to the U.S. to train. On Sunday, Esper said Americans were the victims but said he didn’t know if they were targeted.

“I don’t know that yet,” Esper said on “Fox News Sunday.” “That’s why I think we need to let the investigation play out.”

Officials combed through the shooter’s belongings and social media accounts on Saturday while questioning six other Saudi nationals, at least some of them fellow students in the Navy flight training program, the Washington Post reported. Some of the Saudis took cellphone video at the scene, Esper said.

“Some one or two were filming it,” Esper said on Fox. “What’s unclear is, were they filming it before it began, or was it something where they picked up their phones and filmed it once they saw it unfolding. That may be a distinction with or without a difference.”

Gaetz said he spoke with Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the kingdom’s ambassador to the U.S., after the shooting and insisted on the full cooperation of the Saudi intelligence service.

“We want no interference from the kingdom as it relates to Saudis that we have, and if there are Saudis that we do not have that may have been involved in any way in the planning, inspiration, financing or execution of this, that we expect Saudi intelligence to work with our government to find the people accountable and hold them responsible,” Gaetz said. “I was given every assurance from the ambassador that that would occur.”

Gaetz said the “defining feature” of his district in northwest Florida is the military, and the base, which also home to the Blue Angels flight demonstration team.

“There is a special kind of grief when the bravest most patriotic Americans are putting themselves in harm’s way to train people from other countries to be able to protect and defend their own country and then they kill us for it,” he said.


©2019 Bloomberg News

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