Commentary: In Navy Yard Analysis, Where Are the Facts?

Navy Yard employees line up to get into the facility two days after the shooting. Navy Yard employees line up to get into the facility two days after the shooting. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

The horrific killings at the Washington Navy Yard have had a searing impact on the greater government community. The Navy Yard is populated by a diverse array of federal civilian, military and contractor personnel, and the tragedy directly affected each segment of this blended workforce. It is no exaggeration to say that all Americans share a solemn responsibility to examine those events and work together to do whatever possible to keep them from happening again.

As former deputy secretary of Defense John Hamre articulated in a Sept. 19 op-ed in The Washington Post, the reaction to the incident has included too many politically gratifying declarations that threaten to obscure the real and relevant issues. That has been most evident in much of the commentary about, and importance ascribed to, the gunman’s status as a contractor employee with a security clearance.

Let’s be clear about the facts. Contractor and government personnel go through exactly the same clearance process, conducted by the same entities and are subject to the same levels of scrutiny. Thus, any gaps in the process would apply equally to both. Further, the available data on security violations make it eminently clear that contractors present no added risk for physical or information security breaches than anyone else within or supporting the government. As such, the fact that Aaron Alexis wore a contractor badge is irrelevant -- yet it has become a core element of the Navy Yard story. That view is to be expected from those who will take any opportunity, no matter how specious, to slam contractors and diminish or demean the work they do. But it’s far more troubling when such commentary comes from those who normally exhibit more thoughtful analysis. 

Some in Congress have seized the opportunity to blast the company that conducted the shooter’s background check, noting that the firm also conducted Edward Snowden’s background check and is under investigation. The truth is the investigation is ongoing, and no charges have even been filed, let alone adjudicated. Obviously, the investigation should be completed and whatever action is appropriate should be taken. But these critics are presuming guilt and ignoring the fact that the Office of Personnel Management determined that the Alexis and Snowden background checks were properly done. While blaming contractors is good fodder for headlines, given the lack of evidence of wrongdoing in the Alexis and Snowden cases, this kind of piling on is unseemly and irresponsible. In fact, the actual decisions on the clearances were made by government officials. In addition, a recent OPM inspector general report shows 60 percent of fraudulent background checks have been performed by in-house government investigators, even though they perform only 30 percent of the investigations.

My point is not to whitewash any issues or to denigrate government employees in any way. Rather, it is to strongly suggest the responsible course of action would be to avoid finger-pointing, grandstanding and demanding instant “solutions.” All would be better served by a more thoughtful, thorough and fact-based assessment of the clearance process to identify how and where it might be improved -- and whether any improvement could have prevented the events of Sept. 16.  Three of those assessments are underway by the Navy, the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

One key focus of that review should be the mechanisms for disclosing information about an employee who already has a clearance. That clearance should be revoked when factual derogatory information about the employee is brought to the attention of officials. But it’s unclear whether a good process exists for making that happen. The review must also weigh the delicate balance of personal liberty and privacy. These are not simple questions that lend themselves to quick sound bites. Rather, they require meaningful analysis. Those working at government facilities or on behalf of this nation -- regardless of their employer -- deserve no less.

Stan Soloway is president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council and a former deputy undersecretary of Defense.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.