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Pentagon planning to scrutinize recruits with green cards and other foreign ties, memos show

By Dan Lamothe Washington Post 

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon, citing terrorism and espionage fears, is developing a plan to scrutinize prospective recruits with foreign ties, including some US citizens, after a related effort targeting thousands of green-card holders was blocked by a US 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 Department officials and several department memos obtained by the Washington Post. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

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The new vetting is likely to screen thousands of recruits per year who have what the Pentagon considers ‘‘foreign nexus’’ risks, including some Americans who marry a foreign spouse or 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 D. Kernan, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and James N. 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 show the Pentagon to be 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 US citizenship.

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The initiative comes as the Trump administration continues to take steps to curb immigration to the United States. Many of its efforts have been halted by US 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 ‘‘sanctuary cities’’ that refuse to cooperate with immigration enforcement efforts.

Among the people 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 US 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-US passport, having financial interests abroad, residing outside the United States for more than three of the previous 10 years, and living in the country for less than the last five consecutive years unless the circumstances involved work related to the US government.

The Pentagon is preparing the new policy after Kernan’s office and the Army combined in 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 new screening process still faces a major hurdle: another court injunction. In November, Judge Jon Tigar of the US District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that 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.