NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. — A two-star Air Force general responsible for overseeing atomic matters on Tuesday voiced confidence in security at service bases housing nuclear-tipped ground-based ballistic missiles and gravity bombs, following Monday’s deadly shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington.
Asked if the Air Force would review its contractor security clearances and base-access procedures — given revelations that alleged killer Aaron Alexis had a history of mental-health problems and gun-related incidents — Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak played down the idea that similar security gaps could affect his service’s stewardship of two-thirds of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
“We never stop doing that,” said Harencak, the Air Force assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration. “We’re always constantly self-assessing our security procedures; we’re always testing our security procedures.”
“This is not just part of the nuclear enterprise … but [is] throughout our United States Air Force,” he continued, speaking at an Air Force Association conference just outside of Washington. “We’re never static when it comes to looking at better ways … to secure our airmen and our facilities.”
The nuclear leader added, though, that he would have to check with his service’s security directorate before knowing whether a fresh Air Force review would be conducted, based on the apparent Navy Yard lapses that allowed Alexis a facility badge as a contractor and entry into the Navy facility.
The Air Force did not provide a requested response on the matter prior to press time on Wednesday.
The Navy Yard shooter killed 12 civilian personnel at the base before being shot dead himself by law enforcement. Several others were wounded in the attack, which has since been attributed to Alexis as the lone gunman.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday announced that he had launched two major reviews the prior day, both of which will be led by Ashton Carter, the Pentagon’s No. 2 official.
“We will do everything possible to prevent this from happening again,” Hagel said at a press conference.
One review is to focus on “physical security and access procedures” for U.S. bases worldwide, while the other will address Defense Department “practices and procedures for granting and renewing security clearances,” including for contractors, he said.
Pentagon leaders would implement the recommendations of both reviews and address any gaps they find, Hagel said.
“Obviously there were a lot of red flags,” the defense secretary said in reference to Alexis’s ability to retain a security clearance and facility privileges. “Why they didn’t get picked up, why they didn’t get incorporated into the clearance process, what he was doing — Those are all legitimate questions that we’re going to be dealing with.”
Alexis previously had been arrested but never charged with a crime, leading some observers to question whether the clearance process may not account sufficiently for troubling warning signs.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stopped short of concluding whether the process was to blame, or if instead there was human error in implementing existing clearance or access rules.
“I think this will be scrutinized a great deal,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaking at the same press briefing. “Until I understand the outcome of the investigation, I can’t render a judgment about whether it was a red flag or just something that flew beneath the radar.”