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Mabus orders reviews of Navy, Marine base security

Sep. 17, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
An armed officer works near the gate at the Washington Navy Yard, closed to all but essential personnel, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. The Navy Department's top civilian has ordered a security review of all Navy and Marine Corps bases.
An armed officer works near the gate at the Washington Navy Yard, closed to all but essential personnel, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. The Navy Department's top civilian has ordered a security review of all Navy and Marine Corps bases. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)
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The ease in which former sailor Aaron Alexis could access the Washington Navy Yard, and a secured building, with a firearm is raising questions about possible security gaps at other military bases.

With that concern in mind, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has ordered two rapid reviews of security at all Marine and Navy bases in the U.S. The Navy review will be headed by Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of Fleet Forces Command, who will report his findings by Oct. 1. The Marine Corps review will be led by Lt. Gen. Rick Tryon, head of Marine Corps Forces Command.

Alexis, a 34-year-old who served four years in the Navy, was working with The Experts, a Defense Department subcontractor on a Navy-Marine Corps computer project. His job allowed him access to the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters, where he went on a shooting spree, killing 12 and wounding eight more.

The FBI’s investigation into the shooting will center on Building 197, where NAVSEA is headquartered, a secure building in the middle of the yard. A person needs a military ID or an escort to access the base, which has headquarters buildings for the Navy’s Judge Advocate General, Navy Installations Command, and Naval History and Heritage Command.

Employees at the building are subject to random checks, like an inspection of their bags upon entering, but it is possible that Alexis entered the building with a weapon, or multiple weapons, concealed. In addition, Alexis may have been able to access to the headquarters through an alternate entrance.

NAVSEA faces the additional challenge of hosting countless guests and contractors during the day.

It’s unclear whether budget cuts may have hampered base security. Navy Installations Command suffered a nearly $500 million cut to its operations funds in the past six months, as the service grappled with massive cuts. CNIC warned in late March that it would be cutting security forces and firefighters. In addition, a nationwide security exercise was canceled because of budget cuts.

CNIC did not respond to a request Tuesday about whether these cuts affected any base security positions on the Navy Yard.

Security experts warned that hostile insiders who turn on their own are fast becoming one of the military’s gravest problems — and that this can happen anywhere.

“The insider threat, the most insidious thing about it, is it’s a person who knows your procedures and usually can break down layers in your defense,” said retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, who oversaw fleetwide security policy as the No. 2 at Fleet Forces Command before retiring in 2011. “Here you had a person who was [former Navy]. They know the deal at the gate. And now they’re a contractor and they have the credentials with which to gain access. And so that’s what the insider threat does: It breaks down your defense in depth against these threats because that person can get through the first layer.”

An insider knows the security rules and access points and is capable of exploiting them to maximize the terror they can unleash. While much remains unclear, it is likely that Alexis used this knowledge and may have even rehearsed his attack, another security expert said.

“Did he do drive-bys of the perimeter? Did he do a test run? When was his last access in?,” asked Fred Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism expert. “I find it hard to believe that he woke up yesterday morning and decided on the spur of the moment that he was going to get into the facility.”

Burton, who is now an executive with the consulting firm Stratfor, said this tragedy will expose the breaches in the military’s defenses — ones that likely run cut across the military and millions of people.

“The real question to ask is how many more people are like that in the work place that haven’t manifested themselves in that manner and what systems are in place to catch that person before they grab an assault rifle and walk into a workplace,” Burton said in a phone interview Tuesday.

There is more tiered security at fleet bases, such as Norfolk, Va., where four aircraft carriers are homeported, said Daly, the retired three star who now is the chief executive of the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Md., in an interview Tuesday.

As investigators attempt to find out what motivated Alexis, it is clear that insiders, however small in number, can exploit and attack military bases anywhere. In that context, Daly said, the office building that borders the Potomac River was not unusual in the sense that mass shootings are, sadly, no longer unusual.

Asked whether NAVSEA headquarters was an unexpected place to strike, Daly replied: “I suppose you could say the same about those flights that went into the World Trade Center and into the Pentagon and into Somerset, Pa. And you could say the same about Columbine and Sandy Hook. You always reflect in that fashion: ‘Why did it happen here?’ ”

“The real truth is that in the era we live in, it could happen anywhere,” Daly said.

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