By Jeremy Herb - 09/19/13 12:11 AM EDT
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday announced the Pentagon would conduct two military-wide reviews of base security and security clearances in the wake of Monday’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. [WATCH VIDEO]
In the two days since police say Aaron Alexis, 34, fatally shot 12 people at the Navy Yard, questions have arisen over why the former Navy reservist kept his security clearance despite apparent mental health issues and gun-related arrests.
“When you go back in hindsight and look at all of this, there were some red flags,” Hagel said at a Pentagon press conference.
“Why they didn’t get picked, why they didn’t get incorporated into the clearance process, what he was doing — those are all legitimate questions that we’re going to be dealing with,” he said. “How do we fix it?”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were quickly mobilizing with investigations and hearings to examine how Monday’s attack occurred.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that her committee would be investigating the security clearance processes and suggesting ways to improve them.
Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said that he and ranking member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) were preparing a hearing to probe the efficacy of background checks.
And Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Wednesday requested an inspector general investigation into the background checks conducted on Alexis.
“Clearly, there’s a problem with the security clearance,” Feinstein told The Hill. “With somebody arrested three times, somehow, in a security clearance, these arrests ought to be picked up. The fact that they’re connected with firearms ought to be picked up.”
A Pentagon inspector general report released Tuesday unearthed major problems in the Navy’s background checks for access to bases, finding that 52 felons were allowed to enter such facilities. In these instances, a desire to cut costs had led to ineffective background checks, the report found.
The background check process scrutinized by the inspector general was not the one Alexis underwent, but the findings nevertheless fueled calls for strengthening the process, particularly for government contractors.
Senators pointed to the case of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked highly classified NSA documents earlier this year, as another example of weaknesses in the system.
“It’s a pattern of contractors,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
Defense officials said that Alexis obtained his security clearance while still in the Navy, and was not subjected to an additional background check to maintain his clearance when he became a contractor.
The officials said that a reinvestigation could be triggered when a former military member is transitioning into contractor or civilian service. But that only occurs if the time between retirement and re-entry is more than two years and if “derogatory information” is uncovered.
Monday’s shooting has also reignited the debate over gun control that flared up after last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
That discussion did not lead to any new laws, however, despite a push by President Obama, his allies and some of the families of the Sandy Hook victims.
Feinstein and other supporters of stricter gun control measures want to make another push in Congress after Monday’s shooting, but thus far there appears to be little momentum behind them.
Lawmakers say they’re optimistic they can get traction to address mental health issues in the wake of the shooting and the mental problems from which Alexis apparently suffered.
“I think the one consistent factor in all of these tragedies over the last several years is clearly you have people with huge mental health problems that we’re not dealing with in a way that prevents things from happening,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who said he reached out to the White House this week to work on mental health legislation.
Reports in the wake of the attack indicate Alexis suffered from mental health problems, including an episode last month where police were called. Alexis reportedly said he was being followed and was worried people were going to hurt him.
The Department of Veterans Affairs said that Alexis received treatment in August for insomnia but told doctors he was not struggling with anxiety or depression. The VA said Alexis never sought an appointment from a mental health specialist.
In 2008, the Pentagon removed a question from the government’s security clearance form asking about mental health visits in order to encourage service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to seek help.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Wednesday he supported that decision.
“A man or woman should have the ability to, with treatment, overcome them and then to have a fruitful life and gain employment, including inside of the military,” Dempsey said.
“This particular individual, of course, wasn’t a simple matter. I don’t know what the investigation will determine, but he committed murder. And I’m not sure that any particular question or lack of question on a security clearance would probably have revealed that.”
Dempsey and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday, were both adamant that budget cuts had no role in Monday’s shooting. They were pushing back at the suggestion that military budget cuts from sequestration could have had an effect.
“The budget issue did not degrade the security at the Navy Yard [nor] in any way contribute to this,” Dempsey said.
Some lawmakers, however, argued the issues were related.
“If you put more resources, which means money, into the security at those bases, it’s going to have to come out of some place, most likely readiness and O&M [operations & maintenance],” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said, referring to two areas of the military budget hit hard by sequestration.
“It’s like, ‘Do you want cancer or diphtheria?’ ” Inhofe said. “They’re both bad.”
— Carlo Muñoz and Rebecca Shabad contributed.
— Updated at 8:11 p.m.