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.

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