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Fort Hood Shooting Shows Lingering Security Gaps

Spc. Ivan Lopez, alleged Fort Hood shooter. (Army Guard)

The latest shooting at Fort Hood highlights the need to improve security on military posts across the country and better identify troops who may be threats, officials said.

The gunman, Spc. Ivan Lopez, 34, an Iraq war veteran undergoing treatment for mental health issues, opened fire Wednesday on the sprawling Army base outside Killeen, Texas, with a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol.

Lopez killed three people and wounded 16 more before committing suicide in a confrontation with a security officer. The incident was the third mass shooting on a U.S. military installation in less than five years involving a gunman with military service. It came just weeks after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged "troubling gaps" in the Pentagon's security clearance system and installation management practices.

"Perfection is never going to be possible," Paul Stockton, a president at Sonecon LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based advisory firm, and a former assistant secretary of defense, said in a telephone interview with Military.com, referring to security changes. "We need to take risk-based approaches to invest and improve policies where they're going to have a big impact."

The incident at Fort Hood is the latest in a series of shootings at military facilities. Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, Fort Hood's base commander, said Lopez may have been involved in an argument with another soldier shortly before the shooting began at about 4:10 p.m. local time.

Just last week, Jeffrey Tyrone Savage, a civilian contractor, killed a military police officer while trying to board the destroyer USS Mahan at the naval station in Norfolk, Va. In 2013, Aaron Alexis, a former sailor, killed a dozen civilians and contractors at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.. In 2009, then-Army Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 people at Fort Hood in the deadliest shooting on a U.S. military facility.

Lopez, the shooter in Wednesday's attack, was being treated for sleep disturbances, personality disorder and anxiety, Army Secretary John McHugh said during a congressional hearing on Thursday. He had taken a variety of medications, reportedly including antidepressants.

Under existing law and regulation, base commanders were barred from asking him about the pistol he owned even though he was under treatment for a variety of mental health issues, officials said. Commanders could have possibly taken steps to secure it only if Lopez had been judged by a mental health professional to be a risk to himself or others, they said.

Lopez spent nine years in the Puerto Rico National Guard before serving on active duty, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told lawmakers. He did a one-year deployment to the Sinai Desert with the Guard, and then served a four-month tour in Iraq from August to December 2011. He claimed to have suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq, but an initial search of records showed he was not wounded in action, Army officials said.

Regardless of motive, the incident shows that "when we have these kinds of tragedies on our bases, something's not working," Hagel said Wednesday during a visit to Hawaii. "We will continue to address the issue. Anytime you lose your people to these kinds of tragedies, it's an issue, it's a problem."

The Pentagon's multiple investigations into the Navy Yard shooting revealed "troubling gaps" in security procedures, Hagel said last month. In response, he ordered more frequent screening of personnel with access to defense facilities, the creation a center to analyze "insider threats" such as those posed by individuals with valid security clearances, and the deployment of a more robust identity-management system.

At the time, Hagel also said he was considering additional recommendations to reduce the number of personnel with security clearances, have the Pentagon rather than the Office of Personnel Management conduct background investigations, and do more to de-stigmatize the process for seeking mental health treatment.

Stockton, who served as the assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and Americas' security affairs until January, helped lead an independent investigation of the Navy Yard shooting and concluded in part that the Pentagon relies too heavily on perimeter security to protect its workers.

"That approach is outmoded, it's broken, and the department needs to replace it," he said. "Increasingly, cyber, kinetic, all threats, they're inside the perimeter."

On Thursday, Stockton said he welcomed Hagel's commitment to strengthening the safety of the department's workplaces and installations against insider threats.

"The shootings reinforce the need for the department to build on the progress that is already underway and to continue to implement the very important measures that Secretary Hagel has directed the department to carry forward," he said.

Still, it's unclear how quickly the Defense Department will be able to implement the new initiatives, especially at a time when budgets are tightening. Even under an accelerated timeline, the identity-management system won't be ready until 2016.

The Pentagon's security clearance system relied on a periodic re-investigation in which a previously completed background check was updated every five, 10 or 15 years, depending on the type of clearance. Hagel said continuous checks will seek to pull information from law enforcement and other relevant databases to "help trigger an alert if derogatory information becomes available."

That may not have helped in the case of Lopez, who, according to preliminary checks, didn't have a significant criminal record. Both Fort Hood gunmen reportedly bought the firearms from the same gun store, Guns Galore in Killeen, in the days leading up to the violence.

Troops, with the exception of military police officers, aren't allowed to carry personal firearms on base. But they're typically not screened for weapons at entrances. Service members, civilians and contractors are usually waved through the gates simply by displaying proper identification.

The issue of physical screening was raised in a lawsuit from an attorney representing the family of one of the victims of the Navy Yard shooting. The complaint alleges the U.S. military and contractors committed "gross negligence" in part by failing to pat down the gunman or checked the contents of his bag, either manually or with a metal detector. The security procedure is standard practice across the country at courthouses, stadiums, even Smithsonian museums.

-- Matt Cox and Richard Sisk contributed to this report.

--  Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@monster.com.

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