WASHINGTON – A veteran of the federal security clearance process for more than 40 years says critical opportunities were missed to have the security clearance of Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis pulled or suspended.
There are “points along this whole process where it failed,” lawyer Sheldon Cohen tells WTOP. “I’ve handled hundreds of cases, so my experience in this is quite extensive.”
Cohen’s practice in Fairfax County, Va., concerns security clearances and representing people with clearance issues. He says red flags that could have called Alexis’ mental stability into question include the gunman’s visits to Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) hospitals and complaints he filed with police.
In one case, police in Newport, R.I., faxed a report to Naval Station Newport security about Alexis, detailing what could be characterized as paranoid delusions. Alexis told police he was being followed, that voices were harassing him and that people were shooting microwave beams into his body to prevent him from sleeping.
That should have prompted the Navy to suspend Alexis’ security clearance and initiate a thorough investigation into his mental health, Cohen says. Navy Chief of Information Rear Adm. John Kirby tells WTOP that base security in Rhode Island looked hard at the police report and decided Alexis wasn’t a physical threat.
“The Navy did not look far enough into it. Because in many, many cases I’ve been involved in, when there’s issues of mental instability that’s brought to the attention of security authorities, they do look into it and do suspend the clearance until they look into it further,” Cohen says.
Kirby says the Navy wants to “hold ourselves to account” if any red flags were missed.
Alexis also visited two VA hospitals in the weeks before the massacre at the Navy Yard.
If mental health issues were raised in those visits, Cohen says doctors had an obligation to report them despite privacy rules.
“There’s also a countervailing consideration of national security” because of Alexis’ security clearance status, Cohen says.
The VA says in a memo given to congressional committees that Alexis was seeking treatment for insomnia. Alexis denied he was depressed or having violent thoughts, the department says.
WTOP’s Dick Uliano contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter.