Pentagon objects to installation access restrictions

The Pentagon opposes a House measure that would bar civilians from entering military bases without first undergoing an FBI background check, a provision pushed by New Jersey lawmakers after terrorist suspects allegedly tried to penetrate a base in their state.

In an appeals package that lays out objections to the House Defense authorization bill, Pentagon officials said that waiting for background checks would be impractical and would place “exceptionally onerous requirements” on visitor access procedures at military installations. The provision would also “cause an increase in the already overwhelming volume of requests for background investigations,” the Pentagon said in its appeals package.

The New Jersey delegation, however, continues to support the tougher access requirements. Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) originally introduced a version of the measure in 2003 after a group of about 20 illegal aliens was found working at Fort Dix and Fort McGuire.

Concern grew last May when six men were accused of being Muslim extremists who were plotting an attack on soldiers at Fort Dix and other installations. Saxton, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, added the legislation to the defense bill. Fellow New Jersey Reps. Robert Andrews (D), Chris Smith (R) and Frank LoBiondo (R) have also supported the provision.

Saxton’s proposal mandating background checks would apply to all civilian workers and visitors trying to enter any military base or Department of Defense installation. Under the legislation, federal investigations would be required to verify a person’s citizenship and identity and determine whether there is an outstanding warrant for arrest or whether the person is on a terrorist watch list. The provision also gives the base commander the ability to grant exemptions for some shorter-term visitors.

Investigators in the Fort Dix case said that one of the terrorist suspects was able to gain access to the base and scout locations for a potential attack while working as a pizza deliveryman for his father’s New Hanover restaurant.

But the Pentagon argues that it already requires background investigations for military personnel, civilians working for the military and employees of Pentagon contractors. The legislation could encumber operations on military bases. For example, military officials may have to prohibit civilian buses or trains from stopping at an installation. That would mean no Metro bus service at Fort Belvoir, Va., or train service at Quantico, Va.

Bases would also not be able to call for quick commercial equipment maintenance or for food deliveries to the barracks and offices during long shifts.

“The pizza delivery guy would need an escort,” said the Pentagon in its appeals document to Congress.

Bases would also not be able to hold open-house events, such as air shows or exhibitions, the Pentagon said.

“The Department [of Defense] strongly urges exclusion of this House provision,” the appeals document states. 

But Saxton said the measure is necessary given the continuing terrorist threat.

“This legislation will provide [base security personnel] with the additional resources that they require to continue protecting our installations against the threat of terrorism,” Saxton said in a statement after the House adopted this legislation as part of the defense policy bill.

Meanwhile, officials at Fort Dix have installed new security measures. With the help of a system called “Defense ID,” security guards will be able to conduct real-time checks of dozens of different types of identification cards with a hand-held scanner. They can cross-check that information with local, national and international law enforcement databases. Before being employed at Fort Dix, the system was already used at a limited number of other military installations such as West Point and Andrews Air Force Base.

Saxton said the system is relatively inexpensive, costing about $250,000 to secure all entrances to the entire 50-square mile training post.

“We need to employ modern technology to screen people entering our bases,” said Saxton. “My amendment fosters that at bases across the country. Here, we see that Fort Dix is ahead of the curve.”