US lawmakers from both political parties are asking whether private firms specializing in national security work should tighten screening of their employees after a contractor opened fire Monday in the Washington Navy Yard, killing 12. (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — One day after a contractor shot and killed 12 people at a Navy facility, powerful US lawmakers said Congress should craft new rules under which defense and national security companies screen and hire employees.
Prominent Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday expressed concern that, for the second time in five months, a contract employee for a private firm orchestrated an unprecedented incident. And, in a moment of rare bipartisan agreement, they said it is time for Congress to explore why defense contractors are suddenly going rogue — and how to prevent more incidents.
Senior members of both parties are calling for a comprehensive review of the guidelines that defense and security firms use to review potential employees’ backgrounds, mental states and criminal histories. And some say Congress should write new guidelines.
One danger, however, is an increase in costs for defense companies, which one industry consultant warns would drive up the government’s costs just when budgets are getting smaller.
“The guy shot out some peoples’ tires. The guy shot a hole into” a neighbor’s apartment, said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees, referring to suspected Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. “The man clearly [had] some issues out there. He was discharged from the Navy.
“What are we doing to check who works for the government?” Graham asked. “Is it because we don’t have the resources, or is it because the system is fundamentally broken?”
Asked by Defense News what specific changes lawmakers might make, Graham said: “I think we need to be getting input into what happened, and yeah, tighten up the process.”
Earlier Tuesday, House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, a state with a massive number of government contractors, cited Alexis’ arrests in Oregon and Texas after incidents that involved him firing a gun. In addition to the apartment incident cited by Graham, Alexis also, in a self-described angry “blackout,” shot out the tires on another individual’s car.
Hoyer said Alexis should have been “subject to closer scrutiny” before he was allowed access into a military facility like the Navy Yard. During a breakfast sponsored by Politico, Hoyer said Congress “must” closely examine the rules under which defense contractors screen and hire employees.
Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., called the developing congressional consensus to write new rules to guard against the emerging pattern of rogue security contractors “a very serious question.
“One of the things that happen is [companies] farm out background checks outside of government agencies,” Sessions said. “I think Congress needs to ask some questions about it.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Defense News on Tuesday that “certainly, I’m confident there will be oversight hearings.”
But Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant who is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, warns that new rules could end up costing the government more at a time when Pentagon and national security budgets are shrinking.
“Vetting of employees is already a time-consuming process for defense contractors. New rules won’t stop marginal personalities from slipping through filters,” Thompson said on Tuesday. “However, it will raise costs to the government. We’re more likely to get results from training security guards better than from further tightening the rules for how people are hired.”
Two veteran lawmakers, McCain and Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told Defense News that contractor vetting and hiring practices might be enhanced in a way that could undercut defense companies.
McCain said looking at ways of “enforcing existing rules” should be “subject No. 1 as a result of this tragedy.”
Levin said “the issue yesterday has to do with more of the criminal background and mental stability — that’s part of the larger picture.
“There will be a review of the procedures and the rules … to see if there are any holes and where we could legislate,” Levin said. “It may not need to be done by legislation. It may just be done by tightening the rules that are on the books administratively — it may not take a law to do that.”
Other lawmakers suggested avoiding further rounds of deep across-the-board sequestration cuts would help avoid another rogue contractor incident. They are wondering aloud whether a reduction in security at the Southeast Washington facility contributed to lessened security on Monday morning.
“Of course,” the Senate majority whip, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters when asked about that on Tuesday. “Especially in light of the Navy Yard.”
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., was on an island Tuesday, saying it’s not tightened or rewritten rules that are needed but a funding boost for security measures.
“I think the quality of everything in the military is decreased because of what is happening. I could go back and chart back four-and-a-half years ago. Every [defense] budget this president has had, I respond to it saying this is further disarming America,” Inhofe told reporters. “I think the problem we have right now is the funding problem we’ve never experienced before in the history of America.”
Inhofe said he is not linking the Navy Yard massacre to sequestration, but did say: “When you make cuts, [ramifications] come to places you don’t even think about.”