The U.S. Defense Department is looking into how it guards military installations and grants security clearances after the mass shooting this week at the Washington Navy Yard.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the reviews during a press conference today at the Pentagon. The briefing came two days after Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old former Navy reservist, killed a dozen people at the secure facility before being shot dead by police.
"We will do everything possible to prevent this from happening again," Hagel said. "Where there are gaps, we will close them. Where there are inadequacies, we will address them. And where there are failures, we will correct them."
The incident is the latest to draw scrutiny to the military's system for vetting employees, both uniformed personnel and contractors. Nidal Hasan, a former Army psychiatrist, was recently sentenced to death for a 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, that killed 13 people and wounded another 30. Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, is wanted for leaking information about classified surveillance programs to the news media.
Alexis worked at the Navy Yard as a contractor, despite a history of arrests that appear tied to mental health problems. He was employed by a company called The Experts, a subcontractor on a Hewlett-Packard contract.
Alexis in 2008 was granted a secret-level security clearance by the Navy while working full-time as a Navy reservist. He was honorably discharged from the service in 2011, but maintained his security clearance, which is valid for 10 years. Although Alexis was considered for a so-called general discharge due to "a pattern of misconduct," he was ultimately given an honorable discharge, according to a Navy official.
As a result, Alexis "had a valid pass to gain entry to the building," according to Valerie Parlave, the assistant FBI director in charge of the District of Columbia Field Office. The facility houses Naval Sea Systems Command, where about 3,000 people work on a typical weekday.
At the time he received his clearance, Alexis was arrested at least once before, in 2004 in Seattle for shooting out the tires of a construction worker's car. He was also arrested in 2008 in DeKalb County, Ga., for disorderly conduct and again in 2010 after he fired a bullet into the apartment of his ceiling, according to law enforcement officials.
Just last month, Rhode Island police warned the Navy that Alexis reported hearing voices. A Newport police officer reportedly contacted Naval Station police to tell them that Alexis said he was forced to move hotels to escape noises coming through the floor and the ceiling of his rooms, and that people were following him with a machine to keep him awake.
Hagel said he was "aware of those reports," but hadn't received specific information about them. He also said he didn't know why Alexis was able to keep his security clearance despite his police record. He said such "very basic, relevant" questions will be part of the department's reviews.
Hagel said he directed his deputy, Ashton Carter, to lead a team in reviewing physical security and access procedures at military installations worldwide, as well as practices for granting and renewing security clearances. An independent panel will conduct a similar assessment, Hagel said. The Pentagon-wide reviews, in addition to a separate study by the Navy, will develop conclusions and recommendations for the department to implement, he said.
The day of the shooting, the Pentagon's own inspector's general office released a report that found 52 convicted felons had "routine, unauthorized" access to Naval facilities amid lapses in the security system because "officials attempted to reduce access control costs."
The situation put "military personnel, dependents, civilians, and installations at an increased security risk," the document states.
During the press conference at the Pentagon, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey pushed back against the suggestion that automatic budget cuts known as sequestration played a role in the Navy Yard shooting.
"The budget issue did not degrade the security at the Navy Yard and in any way contribute to this," he said.
Dempsey also said service members dealing with mental health issues shouldn't be stigmatized by having to answer questions about their condition on security clearance forms.
"This particular individual … committed murder," he said, referring to Alexis. "I'm not sure that any particular question or lack of question on a security clearance would probably have revealed that."
The shooting has prompted renewed calls for legislation to curb gun violence.
In a statement released after the incident, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a longtime gun control advocate, said the shooter may have been armed with an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol when he stormed the installation.
"This is one more event to add to the litany of massacres that occur when a deranged person or grievance killer is able to obtain multiple weapons -- including a military-style assault rifle -- and kill many people in a short amount of time," she said. "When will enough be enough?"
Investigators now believe Alexis came to the Navy Yard with a shotgun. He reportedly purchased the firearm from a Virginia gun store last week – but only after he was unable to buy an assault rifle because of a state law that prevents the sale of such weapons to out-of-state buyers.
Parlave, the FBI official, Tuesday had no information that he may have gained access to an AR-15 automatic after entering Building 197. But she said he may have acquired a handgun, possibly from one of the two police officers who were wounded when they confronted him.
Both Hagel and Dempsey declined to provide their personal views on the issue of gun violence in the U.S.
"Gun violence is an issue and it is tragic," Hagel said. But in the role of secretary of defense, "I'm not involved in domestic policy issues," he said. "That's not my role. That's not my responsibility."