In a somewhat testy exchange with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at a Wednesday meeting of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Matt Gaetz pressed for answers on the status and future of Saudi military personnel on U.S. bases.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., became clearly frustrated with U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper during a Wednesday session of the House Armed Services Committee.


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Gaetz’s frustration was evident when Esper could not immediately say whether new Saudi military students are coming to U.S. military bases following last week’s mass shooting by a Saudi aviation student at Naval Air Station Pensacola.


On Friday, Saudi pilot Mohammed Alshamrani killed three people and injured several others before he was fatally shot by an Escambia County sheriff’s deputy. Gaetz’s Northwest Florida district includes NAS Pensacola.


"I can’t answer that affirmatively — I’d have to get back to you on that," Esper said when Gaetz pressed him on whether any new Saudi students are coming into the United States in the wake of events at NAS Pensacola.


"Mr. Secretary, this is an issue of great importance to my constituents," Gaetz replied tersely to Esper’s uncertainty.


Esper did tell Gaetz and other committee members that the Department of Defense has "directed ... 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."


Gaetz, continuing to press Esper on whether new Saudi students are still coming into the United States, told the defense secretary, "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 new students while you are undergoing that vetting process."


Gaetz also had questions for Esper regarding the Saudi students that remain at NAS Pensacola, asking who has access to them while the investigation into Friday’s mass shooting is proceeding.


According to Esper, there are a "dozen or so" immediate friends, acquaintances and other people who had been associated with Alshamrani at NAS Pensacola, and "the FBI, Department of Justice has control of them on the base."


Gaetz’s questions appeared to be based on the fact that the FBI’s investigation is proceeding on the basis that last week’s shootings were an act of terrorism, a conclusion that Gaetz had reached, and announced, within hours of the incident.


"I specifically want to know," Gaetz told Esper, "are the embassy personnel, clerics, others, speaking with, talking to, perhaps providing communication with these people we’re holding for questioning?"


Esper struggled to answer the question, saying he thought a Navy Muslim chaplain might have access to the people associated with Alshamrani, as well as the Saudi commander at NAS Pensacola. Esper could not say whether Saudi embassy personnel had access to those people.


"I can assure you somebody knows," Esper told Gaetz, " I just don’t know right here as I sit. We’ll get back to you on that too."


Gaetz doubled down on his request to Esper following the hearing, releasing the following statement: "After last week’s deadly shooting, the people of Northwest Florida want answers about Saudi student participation in the flight training program at NAS Pensacola. I have asked Secretary Esper to make a public statement today, and answer whether we are currently receiving new Saudi students while the program is under review, if the program has been paused, and who has access to the Saudis currently at NAS Pensacola. My constituents and I eagerly await his response."


Late Wednesday afternoon, a Department of Defense spokesman said a response was forthcoming from Esper. No statement had been released as of deadline on Wednesday.


A Wednesday afternoon email from the duty officer at Defense Public Affairs Operations did, however, note that any response from Esper to Gaetz subsequent to the committee meeting "would be privileged communication that we do not release."