Twelve civilian staffers working at the Department of Defense’s Navy Yard facilities were killed on Monday in what appears to have been an act of violence from one of their peers. Despite the ramifications of such an action having taken place in the core of the nation’s capital, and at the center of national security leadership, Congressional Republicans are instead spending the week focused on a tragedy from a year ago and thousands of miles away.
Alleged shooter Aaron Alexis is reported to have been discharged from the Navy after a 2011 incident in which he fired a shot into the floor of his upstairs neighbors’ apartment. Despite that, and a history of other incidents involving firearms, Alexis had gained employment as a contractor with The Experts, an IT firm that subcontracted through Hewlett-Packard on a project with the U.S. Navy. That in turn allowed Alexis to gain a Secret-level security clearance and the ability to work on Department of Defense locations barred to those who hadn’t undergone investigations.
According to a 2013 report, 582,524 contractors hold similar clearances, having had to undergo background checks along the same lines as Alexis. This includes filling out the SF-70 and having interviewers from the Defense Security Service — themselves often contractors — meet with them and close friends and family to confirm suitability. And the check was apparently done on Alexis more than once. “We had just recently re-hired him [after he worked for the Experts previously]. Another background investigation was re-run and cleared through the defense security service in July 2013,” Thomas Hoshko, CEO of The Experts, said.
Once that process is complete, the access that is granted with regards to entering military facilities is extremely broad. “At military posts like the sprawling Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, for instance, virtually anyone with one of the Common Access Cards (CAC) issued to troops, civilian Defense Department employees, and government contractors can enter the facility without being patted down or made to go through a metal detector,” Foreign Policy’s Yochi Dreazen writes. While early reports yesterday indicated that Alexis may have stolen a coworker’s CAC, The Experts said that he did have his own access card for the facility.
It turns out, according to a DOD Inspector-General report soon to be released, that the checks in place are often at best flawed, with risks left unmitigated:
The Navy “did not effectively mitigate access-control risks associated with contractor-installation access” at Navy Yard and other Navy installations, the report by the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office says.
The audit shows a history of those with criminal records managing to bypass the Navy’s security. Fifty-two “convicted felons received routine unauthorized installation access, placing military personnel, attendants, civilians in installations at an increased security risk,” according to the audit.
The broad access granted to cleared individuals and the damage they can do once inside the system was last debated earlier this year, when NSA contractor Edward Snowden absconded with thousands upon thousands of top-secret documents related to government spying. Since then, the debate over the clearance process — and just how closely the large companies that are paid millions of dollars to support government contracts screen their employees — has largely died down.
So too has the fact that routine re-investigations of clearance holders are being hampered due to budget cuts under sequester. Hoshko told the Washington Post on Tuesday that his and other contracting firms “rely on the military to approve the security clearances of their employees, and fears that budget crunches have led to faster and less thorough checks,” and that his being unaware of Alexis’ history was troubling. “None of this was made aware to us or to the company,” he said. “If there’s not full disclosure on this, how do they expect us to make good decisions about who to trust and hire.”
But that won’t come under investigation in the House of Representatives this week. Instead the next few days will see three — yes, three — hearings on the 2012 attack on a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya that left four Americans dead and the aftermath of that incident. We’ll hear about “unanswered questions” in Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday. In the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the State Department will be asked where the accountability is, pointing towards a recently released report that dismisses the internal investigation led by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And in the Armed Services Committee, Pentagon officials will be questioned about what the U.S.’s current military posture is and what lessons have been learned since last year’s attack.
There are most certainly legitimate policy questions that can be asked regarding Benghazi — it’s just that nobody seems to be asking them, instead focusing on conspiracy theories about assassinations and suspicion that President Obama is attempting to ban insults to Islam. So in a week so filled with tragedy in their own backyard, for Congress to not be paying attention to actual security concerns seems troubling.