The mass shootings at the Washington Navy Yard last week by former sailor Aaron Alexis have focused attention on a problem that has long plagued the defense establishment: security clearances.
Alexis, who killed 12 and wounded eight others, had an honorable discharge and a secret security clearance. He should have had neither.
Despite a gun-related incident, he was allowed to join the Navy; later, while in uniform, poor performance and worrisome behavior led to his early release. But to avoid onerous paperwork, his bosses let him out with an honorable discharge.
That, in turn, made it possible for Alexis to retain his security clearance, which helped him get a job as a government contractor. And then, when Alexis told police in Newport, R.I., that he was hearing voices from the ceiling and walls of his hotel room, and that people were trying to keep him awake with microwave equipment, no one took the logical next step to question his clearance.
Just as with Maj. Nidal Hassan, Pvt. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, critical warning signs were ignored with devastating consequences.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has launched reviews of base access and security clearance processes, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has ordered a study of what happened in the Alexis case.
But already, two things are clear. First, the national security community’s unquenchable appetite for cleared personnel means some people get through who shouldn’t. Second, the current practice of reviewing security clearances only every seven years, with little checking in between, is insufficient. Alexis got his clearance six years ago.
It’s impossible to stop every act of violence, and the nation should not turn into a police state to do so. But in today’s digitally interconnected age, when government agencies are busily collecting data on its own citizens, a once-every-several-years approach is inadequate. Valid warning signs of potential trouble simply can’t be ignored.
One is left to wonder: What other, more dangerous dots aren’t being connected?