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Navy rejects newspaper's request for information on Naval Air Station Pensacola shooter, other Saudi students

By JIM THOMPSON | The Northwest Florida Daily News | Published: December 30, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tribune News Service) — The U. S. Navy has rejected efforts by the Northwest Florida Daily News to obtain information on Saudi air force Lt. Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani, who opened fire in a Naval Air Station Pensacola classroom earlier this month.

Al-Shamrani killed three people and wounded eight more before he was fatally shot by an Escambia County sheriff's deputy. The incident has raised concerns about U.S. vetting of foreign military students being educated on military bases in this country.

In Freedom of Information Act requests filed the day after the Dec. 6 shooting, the Daily News asked the Navy, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Department of Defense for a broad range of information on al-Shamrani and other Saudi students at NAS Pensacola. In the days since the Dec. 6 shooting, law-enforcement officials have questioned at least six other Saudi nationals, including some who were attending the same flight school as al-Shamrani.

In recent emails, both the Navy and the NCIS have rejected both the initial FOIA requests from the Daily News, as well as the newspaper's subsequent appeals of the Navy's initial adverse rulings on the initial FOIA requests.

The Daily News' FOIA filing with the Department of Defense, of which the Department of the Navy is a part, is being processed, according to a Dec. 20 DoD letter. That letter, from U.S, Central Command, whose region of responsibility includes Saudi Arabia, notes that "the processing time for these documents will depend upon consultation with other DoD components, stateside, overseas, or other agencies."

In its FOIA letters, the Daily News asked for "all records pertaining to Ahmed Mohammed al-Shamrani, a Saudi military student at Naval Air Station Pensacola who was fatally shot in a Dec. 6, 2019, incident at NAS Pensacola; (a)ll records pertaining to all other Saudi military students at NAS Pensacola on Dec. 6, 2019," and "(a)ny reports filed by NCIS Pensacola personnel, or other NCIS personnel, regarding the Dec. 6 shooting at NAS Pensacola."

In its initial response to the FOIA request, on Dec. 10, the Navy noted that "all records pertaining to the investigation of the NAS Pensacola shooting are currently exempt from disclosure because the investigation is still pending."

In an appeal to that ruling, the Daily News argued that information pre-dating the incident and subsequent investigation should not be exempt from disclosure, because that information wouldn't compromise the investigation.

In a four-page letter rejecting that appeal, the director of the Navy's general litigation division, G.E. Lattin, noted, in part, that a section of the U.S. Code regarding exemption of records from public disclosure has been held by courts to apply "when disclosure would impede any necessary investigation prior to an enforcement proceeding."

"As such," Lattin noted, "Courts have held (the U.S. Code section) is properly invoked when release would hinder an agency's ability to control or shape an investigation, would enable targets of investigations to elude detection or suppress or fabricate evidence, or would prematurely reveal evidence or strategy in the Government's case."

In the wake of the NAS Pensacola shooting, the Department of Defense scoured an array of records regarding the 850 Saudi military students in the United States, and found nothing indicating a broader threat than the Dec. 6 incident. Additionally, the DoD has been reviewing its vetting procedures for foreign military students.

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