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Navy Yard rampage could have been prevented, Pentagon review concludes

The reservist who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy yard had behaved 'in a way that raised concerns about his mental stability,' but the 'information was not reported ... as required,' the Pentagon review finds.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (r.) and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey (2nd r.) present a wreath at the Navy Memorial in Washington to remember the victims of the deadly shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, Sept. 17, 2013.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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A Pentagon review of the Washington Navy Yard shootings last September, in which a reservist employed by a civilian contractor killed 12 people, concludes that the tragedy could have been prevented with relatively simple measures.

Well before Aaron Alexis went on the shooting rampage it should have been clear that he was troubled, finds the Pentagon report, which makes clear that the military is not pleased with the way the defense contractor handled Mr. Alexis’ background security check.

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The military’s internal review, released Tuesday in Washington, also recommends that the Department of Defense issue fewer secret security clearances and give more attention to mental health care.

Alexis had already been found “to behave in a way that raised concerns about his mental stability and presented indicators that he may cause harm to others,” but “this information was not reported to the government as required,” the review finds. “Had this information been reported, properly adjudicated, and acted upon, Alexis’ authorization to access secure facilities and information would have been revoked.”

According to the report, the contractor that had hired Alexis – the information technology company called The Experts – “failed to meet their contractually-required responsibility to continuously evaluate their employee Alexis and report adverse information.”

In the report’s executive summary, the Department of Defense-appointed co-chairs of the investigating committee make some clear, concise advice, including the recommendation to “use more and better data to investigate clearance seekers” and “strengthen mental health care.”

The report also concludes that the Department of Defense needs to cut down on the number of people who have secret clearances. This is advisable in large part because since 9/11, the number of clearances approved each year by the DOD has tripled and continues to grow, the authors note.

 “This growth magnifies the challenge of investigating clearance seekers, judging their applications, and periodically reviewing them after they are approved.” 

 The report recommends a 10 percent cut in the number of positions that require access to secret information. The authors also suggest what they call a “just in time” clearance system “that gets the Department back into compliance with ‘need to know’ and concentrates our resources on vetting and monitoring a smaller cleared population.”

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At a press conference Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called for the establishment of “Threat Management Units” designed to decrease the possibility of workplace violence by creating teams “that assess the danger that individuals pose to their colleagues.”

According to the report’s authors, the standard government employment forms ask questions about mental health care that “risk stigmatizing mental health treatment.” What’s more, it “often fails to provide reliable information, and requires some respondents to lie.”

Not a good combination, say the authors, who suggest coming up with “substantial revisions” to the mental health screening in an effort to better “separate the unfit, further de-stigmatize treatment, and ensure the quality of mental health care.” 

“Six months ago, the Department of Defense lost 12 members of its family in a senseless act of violence at the Washington Navy Yard. I said at the time that where there are gaps or inadequacies in the department’s security, we’ll find them and we’ll correct them,” Mr. Hagel told reporters. 

 “I think we all understand that open and free societies are always vulnerable,” he said, adding that the latest steps are an effort to respond to lessons learned “from this terrible, terrible tragedy.”