High Security?

Navy Yard shooting
Navy Yard shooting
On September 16, 2013, Aaron Alexis, a lone gunman armed with a shotgun, fatally shot twelve people and injured three others in a mass shooting at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) inside the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, D.C. Alexis was killed by police shortly thereafter. | Photo: Associated Press | Navy Yard Shooting, Violence, Sniper, Gun, Death, Murder, Killing,

Why Navy Yard and Fort Hood will Happen Again.

I've been a security professional in the federal government for over a decade and I've held Top Secret, compartmentalized clearances. I know firsthand that the process for vetting not only federal contractors is lax, but it is also woefully lacking for full time federal employees.

In light of the recent massacre at the Washington Navy Yard, I felt it necessary to address some of the palaver being spewed by the cable news pundits about Aaron Alexis's ability to gain entry into the Navy Yard compound; his security clearance with the federal government; and his military discharge. None of what they have been saying matters. None of it matters because there is a systemic flaw in how physical and personnel security is implemented and executed in the federal government.

I've designed and installed security systems for five separate agencies all over the world. From facilities with the highest levels of security where it wasn't question of "if" there would be attacks, but more a question of "when". I've also managed security at agencies that considered themselves open to the public and saw any measures of security as intrusive and obtrusive, no matter what the threat level.

When I accepted a position at the last federal agency I worked for, I noticed how porous the physical security apparatus was. I attempted (and succeeded) to gain entry into the compound, then the building, and all the way to my office without showing my badge once. I made it past seven armed guards at four separate checkpoints, and two access controlled doors with proximity card readers to get to my office which resides in a secure area. Not once was I challenged. You may say, "but you were the security manager, of course your guards wouldn't to stop you." Wrong, I had only been on the job for two or three days. With exception of one or two who may have been involved with my in-processing, no one knew who I was. And furthermore, if my guards didn't challenge me, even if they knew exactly who I was, they stood the chance of losing their job.

I implemented additional security measures at that agency to improve our security posture, but the fact that I was able to defeat the compound's security so easily was not an anomaly. Yes, I am trained to know what to look for, but a would-be attacker would be looking just as intently for any vulnerability to exploit. Aaron Alexis didn't have to look for an opening; he was granted access. Just as with Snowden and with hundreds of thousands of contractors are daily.

Aaron Alexis
Aaron Alexis

On September 16, 2013, Aaron Alexis, a lone gunman armed with a shotgun, fatally shot twelve people and injured three others in a mass shooting at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) inside the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast Washington, D.C. Alexis was killed by police shortly thereafter. | Photo: | Aaron Alexis, Navy Yard Shooting, Murder, Killing, Violence, Fbi, Gun, Shotgun,

The process for vetting government contractors across different agencies is convoluted and dysfunctional, even though by law (Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004) agencies were instructed to improve internal efficiency and standardize the clearance process. President Bush issued an Executive Order in 2008 (Executive Order 13467) with further instruction in regards to reforming processes related to suitability for contractor employees, but still our system is in shambles and 4.9 million contractors have clearances nationwide.

I once had a colleague who worked as a security clearance adjudicator. He told me of a story where an applicant freely admitted that he was a habitual user of marijuana. My colleague was so taken aback that he called the gentleman into the office for a face-to-face (and non-mandatory) interview. The gentleman casually reiterated what was on his background investigation application with no hesitation. Although my colleague had reservations about sending the gentleman forward in the adjudication process, there was nothing in the regulations that prohibited him from doing so. The framework in which government clearances are granted in wrought with holes like this one. It's inevitable that the occasional ne'er-do-well will slip through.

I once administered an armed guard contract with one of the nation's largest security firms. Some of the applicants that had actually been hired by the firm and were now candidates to serve on my contract were convicted felons, or individuals with weapons charges, etc. It got so bad that I amended the contract to state that no one with a questionable past could even be considered to serve on that particular contract, but I was one person at one agency telling this large contractor "NO!". How many other agencies were these individuals presented to, and accepted?

I hear the talking heads making such a big deal that Alexis had been "separated" from the Navy - who cares. Without knowing the reasons behind his separation, stating that he was separated is akin to saying you left your job. If he didn't get a dishonorable discharge, or a bad conduct discharge (BCD, A.K.A. the "big chicken dinner"), then it's irrelevant. Besides, I know PLENTY of federal employees and contractors who actually do have BCD's, and they had no problem obtaining secret, and even top secret clearances. I can name at least two convicted felons that are currently employed in the federal government ' and there are many, many more. It is not my contention that these individuals shouldn't have been granted an opportunity to work and earn a living. I'm only demonstrating that these buzz-words that the uninformed latch on to are immaterial.

Securing our federal facilities and protecting our people is of utmost importance, but the larger issue at hand here is the mental state that pushes one to the place where the action taken is that of such dire consequence. All the security in the world will not be able to stop an individual who has been deemed "suitable" to have access to a facility, when that individual goes off the deep end. The key to a successful security program is: awareness, multiple layers, and vigilance. Making sure that your constituents are aware of the possible scenarios they may face; ensuring that a would-be attacker is challenged at every possible avenue of approach; and ensuring that EVERYONE is on the lookout for suspicious activity. These three aspects allow a security force to react quickly and address issues early which will mitigate undesirable outcomes.

So how do we prevent Fort Hood and Navy Yard shootings from occurring? How do we mitigate an attack from a "trusted" member of the very organization that deemed suitability? The answer is draconian in nature and requires the loss of freedom for everyone involved. The old adage, which has become clich? over the past few years, rings true ' "freedom isn't free". Society pays the price with the loss of innocent lives. For every measure of security that we gain, we lose a modicum of freedom. It's a zero sum game.

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Updated May 22, 2018 6:39 PM UTC | More details


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