Investigators are still learning about Aaron Alexis, the gunman who killed 12 people Monday at the Washington Navy Yard. Yet a central question authorities must address is whether Alexis, a civilian contractor for the Navy with a troubled personal history, should have had the security clearance to work at the military base.
Alexis' confrontational and bizarre behavior, his troubles with the police and his reported gun violence all raise serious questions about how the Navy and its private-sector contractors vet employees who have regular access to military installations across the United States. Last month, police in Rhode Island responded to Alexis' hotel after he complained he was hearing voices, being followed and kept awake by people sending vibrations into his body through a microwave machine.
Alexis identified himself as a Navy contractor, and police sent the report to the Newport naval base. But authorities there never forwarded the information to their superiors in Washington. The episode did not keep Alexis from being assigned later to Washington, where he used a valid security pass to gain access Monday morning to the Navy Yard. Alexis' earlier episodes — from his insubordination as a Navy reservist to his being twice investigated in other states for shooting-related violence — also weren't enough to revoke his security clearance.
Alexis' conduct apparently hovered in a gray area short of what would have disqualified him as a military contractor. Despite his problems in the Navy, he was honorably discharged, which cleared the way to receive a security pass. No charges were filed in either gun incident. And while Alexis sought care from the Department of Veterans Affairs for insomnia and reportedly complained about suffering from posttraumatic stress, he was not committed on mental grounds. And Alexis legally purchased the shotgun that police said he used in the shootings.
The Obama administration correctly has ordered reviews of base security and the backgrounding process for defense contractors. At a minimum, authorities need to answer how Alexis brought a gun into the Navy Yard and how they intend to restrict weapons going forward. Even if there was no single red flag that could have led to Alexis' security status being revoked, the escalation of trouble in his life, combined with his reaching out for psychiatric treatment, should have brought greater scrutiny by the Navy. Contractors are a vital part of the modern military — indeed, the entire government. But this case shows a gap in determining who is suitable to be allowed to work on a military base.