On Wednesday, in a U.S. House Armed Services Committee hearing, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., questioned U.S. Defense Sec. Mark Esper about the current status of the flight program training Saudi Arabian students in the United States and what steps the Department of Defense is taking to address Saudi Arabian students currently at NAS Pensacola.
Rep. Gaetz asked Esper whether the U.S. military is currently accepting new students into the program and urged him to make a public statement with information regarding the status of the program and if the application process has been halted.
A rough transcript is below:
Rep. Gaetz: Mr. Secretary, I want to thank you and I want to thank the president for instituting a review of the Saudi program. I also wish I had more time to reflect on the heroism of the sailors who ran toward gunfire and who also informed on the location of the shooter during this terrorist attack. During this review that you are conducting, is the program paused? Are we going to be taking in new Saudi students?
Sec. Esper: First of all, my condolences to your constituents. You’re right – there was a lot of heroism on the ground that day. A very tragic day for everybody. So yes, we have directed, if you will, a stand-down that would limit Saudi participation in our US-based training to classroom training only until we can do expedited vetting of all Saudi students here in the United States. I spoke to their deputy defense minister yesterday, by the way, a graduate of Pensacola Naval Air Training, he agreed, he fully supports this, they are going to do parallel vetting a well to make sure they understand…
Rep. Gaetz: During that time, new incoming students or not new incoming students.
Sec. Esper: I can’t answer that affirmatively – I’d have to get back to you on that.
Rep. Gaetz: Mr. Secretary, this is an issue of great importance to my constituents.
Sec. Esper: It’s a very fair question.
Rep. Gaetz: I would hope that very soon, perhaps within the day, you would be able to make a public statement as to whether or not we are taking news students while you are undergoing that vetting process.
Sec. Esper: I think I know the answer, but I want to be affirmative in what I tell you. I think that’s a very reasonable thing to do.
Rep. Gaetz: There are a number of Saudis that are currently with us on your base, NAS Pensacola – who currently has access to those people during the investigation?
Sec. Esper: Of the dozen or so that were immediate friends, acquaintances, etc. of the alleged killer, the FBI. Department of Justice has control of them on the base.
Rep. Gaetz: So who has access to those people? I specifically want to know like, are the embassy personnel, clerics, others, speaking with, talking to, perhaps providing communication with these people we’re holding for questioning?
Sec. Esper: I don’t know exactly – I want to say a Navy Muslim chaplain may have access to them, certainly the FBI and DOJ does.
Rep. Gaetz: Do any other Saudis have access?
Sec. Esper: I think the Saudi commander has access to them – he’s the one that’s keeping them restricted onto that site.
Rep. Gaetz: How about Saudi embassy personnel?
Sec. Esper: I don’t know.
Rep. Gaetz: That’s also really important because to me, this is…
Sec. Esper: I can assure you somebody knows, I just don’t know right here as I sit. We’ll get back to you on that too.
Rep. Gaetz: I appreciate your prompt attention to this because again that deeply informs on what we can do as policymakers to try to improve this relationship with the kingdom because, 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. These Saudi students – they’re connected folks when they end up in Pensacola. I appreciate your great efforts and I look forward to those answers.