Military weighs plan to scrutinize recruits with foreign ties, including some U.S. citizens

U.S. military recruits take part in a swearing-in ceremony during halftime of an NFL game in December.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)
Washington Post

The Pentagon, citing terrorism and espionage fears, is developing a plan to scrutinize prospective recruits with foreign ties, including some U.S. citizens, after a related effort targeting thousands of green-card holders was blocked by a federal judge last year.

The new policy, still in development, will be distributed to the military services by no later than Feb. 15, according to two Defense officials and several Defense Department memos obtained by the Washington Post. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

The new vetting would probably screen thousands of recruits per year who have what the Pentagon considers “foreign nexus” risks, including Americans who marry a foreign spouse and who have family members with dual citizenship, the memos said. Anyone identified for the screening would not be allowed to attend recruit training until they are cleared, a process that could take days for some but drag on much longer for others.


One draft document, labeled “predecisional,” has circulated in recent weeks among senior officials and others who oversee recruiting. It is attributed to Joseph Kernan, the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, and James Stewart, who performs the duties of undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, a post President Trump has left without a permanent political appointee since Robert Wilkie left it to run the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“One primary concern associated with qualifying for these positions relates to the potential counterintelligence or terrorism risks,” the memo says. “... The Department must implement expanded foreign vetting and screening protocols to identify and mitigate the foreign nexus risks.”

Defense officials declined to comment on the memos, saying the new policy is undergoing legal reviews and that some changes could be made.

The documents reveal how the Pentagon is grappling with the dual challenge of thoroughly screening prospective recruits for potential security threats and finding enough men and women willing to join the military. The armed forces have long sought green-card holders as recruits, marketing such jobs as a chance to attain U.S. citizenship.

The new initiative comes as the Trump administration continues to take unprecedented steps to curb immigration to the United States. Many of its efforts have been halted by federal courts, including the president’s efforts to bar Central Americans from seeking asylum in the United States, end a deferred-action program for young, undocumented immigrants, and withhold funds from so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with certain immigration enforcement efforts.

Among those who could be targets of the foreign nexus screening are people who have foreign contacts, foreign citizenship, dual citizenship, a birthplace outside the United States if born to foreign parents, family members who are not U.S. citizens, and immediate family members who have dual citizenship, according to one of the memos.

Other factors that could require such screening include possessing a non-U.S. passport, having financial interests abroad, residing outside the United States for more than three of the previous 10 years, and living in the United States for less than the last five consecutive years unless the circumstances involved work related to the U.S. government.

A Dec. 21 memo prepared by Stephanie Miller, who oversees recruitment policy for the Pentagon, says the Defense Department recognized gaps associated with its screening of individuals with foreign ties “since the receipt of specific reporting beginning of 2016,” though the memo does not specify what that information covers. But the concern stretches to some American citizens, she argued.

“DoD recognizes that some U.S. citizens pose a similar risk by virtue of their foreign associations, foreign travel, marriage to a foreign spouse, or dual citizenship,” she wrote. “It is imperative to treat the risk related to a foreign nexus in a similar fashion for any recruit or service member, regardless of citizenship.”

The Pentagon is preparing the new policy after Kernan’s office and the Army combined in the summer of 2018 to screen green-card holders already in the military through a new process that relies on dozens of existing intelligence databases, one Defense Department memo said. The screening detected more derogatory information about the service members in less time than traditional background checks managed by the Office of Personnel Management, the memo said.

The memo promised that the new process — called foreign nexus screening and vetting, or FNSV — “can be completed in a matter of days or, depending on the analysis required for detected anomalies, in a few weeks, as compared to the months and years” required under traditional background checks. The new screening process, the memo said, “can process up to 1,600 cases per day.”

Historically, about 70% of all recruits with green cards are processed quickly, Defense officials said in the memo. Under the new policy, the other 30% would still be withheld from recruit training until their screening is complete, but the process would in theory be faster.

The new screening process still faces a major hurdle: another court injunction.

In November, Judge Jon Tigar in the Northern District of California ruled it was unreasonable for the Pentagon to require all green-card holders to undergo a full background check and receive a favorable determination in a security review. He issued a preliminary injunction, forcing the Pentagon to begin shipping a backlog of thousands of green-card holders to recruit training.

The Defense Department has continued to fight the case in court. Miller argued in a Dec. 14 declaration that if the court does not stay its order, “the harm to the military and national security could be significant and irreparable.”

“Foreign nationals, including those with [green-card] status, raise unique counterintelligence and counterterrorism concerns because of the heightened susceptibility to influence by foreign governments and organizations and because of the difficulty in verifying information about them that is maintained oversees,” Miller’s declaration said.

The injunction has not been lifted, but the Defense Department memo from Kernan and Stewart said the Pentagon is preparing to put in place its new policy within 30 days of the court approving it. It is unclear whether the court will do so.

Dan Lamothe writes for the Washington Post.