Pentagon: Navy Yard assault could have been prevented

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 18, 2014 


A police officer stands guard at the front gate of the Washington Naval Yard September 17, 2013 in Washington, D.C.


— Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday cast a wide net of blame for last September’s Washington Navy Yard shooting rampage as the Pentagon released the results of three separate probes into the tragedy.

The reviews of the Sept. 16, 2013, assault, which killed 12 people and left shooter Aaron Alexis dead, found multiple security and oversight failures by the military, civilian government agencies and outside contractors.

“The reports identified troubling gaps in (the Defense Department’s) ability to detect, prevent and respond to instances where someone working with us, a government employee, member of our military or a contractor, decides to inflict harm on this institution and its people,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.

After entering the Navy Yard and then gaining access to a classified section, Alexis’ shooting spree lasted 23 minutes before he was slain.

A former sailor working as a computer expert at the Navy Yard, Alexis had a pattern of misconduct during his military service and increasingly bizarre behavior afterward that should have prevented his access to the military base, the Navy concluded in its investigation.

“For more than a decade, as a military organization, we’ve experienced the pain of combat losses, but six months ago, we lost 12 patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their nation, this time at home,” Navy Secretary Raymond Mabus said at the Pentagon.

Alexis’ supervisors at Hewlett-Packard, the facility’s main information technology contractor, and The Experts, the HP subcontractor that directly employed him, observed unstable behavior that suggested he might harm others, the Navy report said.

“This information was not reported to the government as required,” the Navy found. “Had this information been reported, properly adjudicated and acted upon, Alexis’ authorization to access secure facilities and information would have been revoked.”

In the days before the shootings, Alexis reported hearing voices and having problems sleeping. Employees at a Newport, R.I., hotel where he stayed had called his company and expressed concern.

Michael Thacker, a spokesman for Hewlett-Packard at its Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters, said Tuesday that the high-tech giant was not made aware of Alexis’ problems by its subcontractor that employed him at the Navy Yard.

“The Experts was aware of significant information about Aaron Alexis that was not known to HP,” Thacker told McClatchy in an email. “Yet, The Experts made a decision to send Alexis back to work after the incident in Newport without sharing any of this information with HP or the government.”

Hewlett-Packard terminated its ties with The Experts after the shootings. Reporters seeking comment Tuesday from The Experts were referred to Thomas P. Hoshko, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., firm’s chief operating officer. He did not respond to a phone message from McClatchy.

Adm. John Richardson, who led the Navy probe, said Tuesday that The Experts had “a good knowledge of this aberrant behavior” by Alexis, but that “with Hewlett-Packard, it’s less certain.”

The Navy report said several of its agencies failed to exercise adequate oversight of Alexis’ employers.

An independent review of the deadly assault criticized the escalating number of security clearances, saying they’ve tripled since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The outsider reviewers recommended that the number of military and civilian employees with such clearances _ 2.5 million within the Pentagon alone _ be reduced, with tighter controls and more frequent updates after they’re granted.

Military commanders should also take steps to destigmatize mental health problems and assure their troops that they won’t be punished for seeking help, the outside review found.

Linda Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, which represents 750,000 therapists and other mental health providers, said treatment is critical to preventing future outbreaks of violence.

“Sadly, nothing can guarantee that tragedies like the Navy Yard or Sandy Hook (Elementary School) shootings won’t happen again,” she said in a statement. “And while our training program is no panacea, early intervention is crucial when dealing with mental illness.”

A separate internal Defense Department report to Hagel found other problems:

_ The civilian Office of Personnel Management, which oversees security checks for all federal employees seeking clearances, was missing “critical information” in its background probe of Alexis.

_ The Navy granted Alexis a security clearance with set conditions, but it didn’t put in place oversight steps to ensure compliance.

_ Alexis’ commanders failed to report “behaviors indicating psychological instability” or seek mental health support during his Navy service from May 8, 2007, to Jan. 31, 2011.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the Pentagon reviews confirm the findings of his panel’s report on the Navy Yard incident released last month.

“It is imperative that we fix these glaring problems before another tragedy occurs,” Issa said in a statement.

Hagel said the Pentagon will implement a “continuous evaluation program” to replace current security-clearance reviews that occur every five or 10 years. He also directed his aides to set up systems so that information from law enforcement databases and other sources is automatically pulled into the records of clearance holders.

The Pentagon will consider reducing the number of its employees with the security clearances by at least 10 percent, Hagel said. It will also weigh reducing its reliance on the government-wide Office of Personnel Management for conducting background checks.

Paul Stockton, a former top Pentagon official who worked on the report, said the independent review had urged the Pentagon to follow the lead of the State Department, which now conducts its own background probes.

In the wake of the Navy Yard shootings, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., led a congressional push to compel the Office of Personnel Management to implement tighter controls on the private contractors it hires to conduct many of the background checks.

Email:; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose

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