It is not highly publicized nor widely known, but the thousands of foreigners are currently serving in America's armed forces. Could this result in the infiltration of the military by terrorists who might gain access to sophisticated weapons or sensitive intelligence material?
Last year the Pentagon says nearly 8,000 foreigners were sworn into the U.S. armed forces - four percent of all those who enlisted. But defense officials reject suggestions that allowing non-Americans to join the military poses any kind of security threat.
Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ryan Yantis tells VOA that, while possible, it is unlikely an al-Qaida or other terrorist operative could penetrate the armed forces. "Anything is possible," Mr. Ryan said. "However, we have taken what we believe to be adequate safeguards, long-standing, proven safeguards to minimize that risk."
And what are those safeguards? Colonel Yantis says first of all, all non-U.S. citizens who enlist must have permanent resident status in the United States - that is, they must be so-called Green Card holders.
Then, Colonel Yantis says, there is a screening process, including a detailed interview and background checks. "When they want to join the Army, they have to sit down with a recruiter," he explained, "It's a one-on-one interview. There's a great deal of paperwork that has to be filled out, outlining their background, where they are from. This is all used for a multi-agency security check."
The U.S. Army alone counts just over 6,000 non-American citizens in its ranks. Colonel Yantis says they join for a variety of reasons, including a sense of patriotism towards their adopted country, a desire for education benefits or job training or perhaps as a path to gaining full U.S. citizenship.
Colonel Yantis says when foreigners join the Army, they are not isolated in separate units but integrated into the Army. However, he says, they are not allowed into sensitive occupations requiring a security clearance. "They cannot have access to classified information nor can they have a security clearance until such time as they are a U.S. citizen," he explained.
The Pentagon says the same holds true for the other armed services. That leaves out enlistment by foreigners into most technical programs and occupations involving electronics, intelligence and commando skills.
Still, there are phony enlistments. The Army acknowledges a recent case in which a Staff Sergeant working with three other recruiters and a Kenyan civilian, assisted in the fraudulent enlistment of 47 African men, apparently for financial gain. Twenty of the Africans were already on active duty when the fraud was uncovered. Most have since been forced out of the military and one is facing deportation.
But even if a terrorist was able to successfully evade the enlistment safeguards or later detection as in the case of the Africans, what good would it do? Defense officials say privately a hypothetical al-Qaida operative would be unlikely to find himself in a position in which he could carry out any meaningful espionage or terrorist activity. The officials also suggest the hypothetical operative's behavior might expose him.
The Army, for example, has for the past several years been dedicated to rooting out extremists in the ranks who have been linked to gang activities or hate crimes based on race or religion. Officials say it is not a serious problem, but they admit there have been incidents involving the displaying of Nazi swastikas or Ku Klux Klan T-shirts or the refusal of an extremist to work with other soldiers who are black or Jewish.
These same officials suggest that an al-Qaida operative, in the Army, might give himself away by refusing to work with or complaining about working with women or Jews.