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House GOP moves to ban public access to service members' military records

The proposal comes after the Pentagon erroneously released the personal information of several Republican politicians who were current or former members of the armed forces.
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House Republicans are attempting to end the decades-old practice of the Defense Department’s releasing summaries of the service records of members of the U.S. military to the public. 

The House Appropriations Committee bill would prohibit any funds from being used to release personal information about current and former service members, which news organizations and some employers use to verify people’s military service. 

According to the Pentagon, the types of information that can currently be released vary but generally include full name, rank, date of rank, past and present duty assignments, awards and decorations, attendance at professional military schools, duty status at any given time, home of record and official photo. 

The Pentagon building in 2019.
The Pentagon building in 2019.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images file

The current Defense Department regulation says that this and other basic information “normally may be disclosed without a clearly unwarranted invasion of their personal privacy.” 

House lawmakers now want to make it illegal for the military to release information regarding any current or former member of the armed forces without their consent. If the individual is deceased, the next of kin would have to provide consent. 

The provision may be stricken from the final spending bill that will eventually make it to President Biden’s desk. But Defense officials are concerned that it could make it through the House and Senate if both parties prioritize more partisan issues.

Under the new proposal, members of the public, new organizations and some employers would have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the military service branch to obtain the information, and the individual must be notified before the information can be released. But the FOIA process is notoriously backlogged and can take months or even years to fulfill a request. 

The only exception would be if the request comes from a federal government entity or state and local law enforcement, which the military can fulfill. 

Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman declined to comment, saying, “It would be inappropriate to comment on pending legislation.”

Rep. Zach Nunn, R-Iowa.
Rep. Zach Nunn, R-Iowa.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

The Republican bill comes after several high-profile cases in which the Pentagon erroneously released the private information of GOP politicians who are former service members. Earlier this year, the Air Force informed Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force Brigadier General, and Iowa Rep. Zach Nunn, a former Air Force officer, that their personal records were mistakenly released without their consent during the midterm election campaigns. The person who requested Bacon's and Nunn's records has ties to the Democratic Party.

That followed the Air Force acknowledgment that they improperly released personal health information about Indiana House Republican candidate Jennifer-Ruth Green, revealing that she was sexually assaulted during her time in the military. The Air Force Academy graduate went on to lose her primary race for Indiana’s 1st Congressional District. 

The Air Force admitted it was a mistake to release such information without the individual’s consent and vowed to send the results of their probe to the Department of Justice. 

“Department of the Air Force employees did not follow proper procedures requiring the member’s authorizing signature consenting to the release of information,” Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek told NBC News. “There was no evidence of political motivation or malicious intent on the part of any employee.”

In that case, however, the information was released after someone submitted a separate application, known as the Standard Form 180, or SF-180, which can request the release of more than the basic details provided to news media and the public by the military. It can include more sensitive information about an individual. The SF-180 requires the service member to sign the form and approve the release, but that did not occur in the case of the lawmakers’ information being released. 

"This is a complete overreaction to a misunderstanding," a defense official told NBC News. "People are conflating two processes."

If the proposed House Republican bill becomes law, it could have a chilling effect on the public’s ability to verify whether someone has earned medals and awards, what their rank and responsibilities were in the military, or if they served at all. 

After multiple people lied about their military service in recent years, Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act of 2013, which made it a crime for anyone to claim they received certain military medals if their intent was to gain money or other benefit. The awards include the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, among others.