Military needs to guard against insiders as well

The News TribuneSeptember 18, 2013 

A visitor at the Washington Navy Yard’s main gate has his identification checked Wednesday.

JASON REED/REUTERS

Let’s just assume from the start that the mass shooting Monday in Washington, D.C., will have little to no impact on the nation’s lax guns laws. After all, if the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Conn., has had no discernible effect, there’s scant reason to think that the deaths of 12 middle-aged government workers will.

So what’s the takeaway from Monday’s rampage at the Washington Navy Yard? What can be learned and changed after an armed man with a history of problems entered a presumably secure military facility with a shotgun and was able to mow down workers before being killed by police? That’s an issue of particular concern here in the Puget Sound region, home to several military installations.

The suspected shooter, Aaron Alexis, worked for a government subcontractor that serviced computer equipment. To access military facilities, he had to pass a background check and had received a “secret” clearance from the Defense Department.

Did those checks not turn up his gun-related arrests (including one in Seattle), his longtime mental health issues and what the Navy had termed a “pattern of misconduct” that led to his discharge from the Reserves? If they didn’t, why not? Are there other ticking time bombs like Alexis getting easy access to military facilities?

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was correct Tuesday in ordering a security check of all U.S. military bases. However, according to Time magazine, an audit scheduled to be released soon raises concerns that the Navy may have relaxed security checks in a money-saving move. A federal source told Time that the audit, conducted by the Pentagon’s inspector general’s office, found that the Navy “did not effectively mitigate access-control risks associated with contractor-installation access” at the Navy Yard and other naval installations.

Translation: It was too easy for contractors to get into Navy facilities. In fact, the audit found that at least 52 convicted felons had been granted routine, unauthorized access to Navy installations.

The Navy itself was well aware of Alexis’ problems and had at one point tried to muster him out with a less-than-honorable discharge – something that likely would have derailed his security clearance. Rhode Island police following up on an incident involving Alexis warned the Navy a month ago that he was suffering from mental problems. And Alexis reportedly had gotten some treatment from Veterans Affairs.

It’s not clear if a tougher background check would have prevented Alexis from buying the shotgun he took into the Navy Yard. He had never been convicted of a gun crime, nor had he been committed for mental illness. What is clear is that, once again, a sick man with a gun has terrorized innocent people and left scores of friends and loved ones to grieve.

Once again, some lawmakers will call for tighter background checks while others will claim that if only more at the Navy Yard had been armed, the shooter would have been stopped sooner. And again, the only thing that may change is that another 12 names will be added to the list of mass-killing victims.

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