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R.I. base didn't consider Navy Yard shooter a threat

Sep. 18, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Officials at the Navy base in Newport, R.I., failed to forward a report from local police last month that Monday’s alleged killer of 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard had complained about hearing voices coming from the ceiling of his hotel, a Pentagon official told USA Today.

Aaron Alexis, 34, was questioned by Newport police on Aug. 7 at a local hotel room. Alexis, a Navy civilian contractor working on a job at the Newport base, told officers that unknown people were trying to prevent him from sleeping and sending “vibrations” through his body. Newport police then contacted base security to alert them about Alexis.

“There is no indication that the information went beyond the naval security force (at base),” the official said, adding that more details could emerge as the investigation continues. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because officials were not authorized to speak publicly.

Base security “did not deem Alexis to pose a threat to himself or others based on his alleged conduct at the hotel that night,” according to another Navy source who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the case. That’s why, the second official said, the base security did not inform Navy officials in Washington or elsewhere.

The Naval Station Newport authorities did not contact Alexis’ employer — a Fort Lauderdale-based information technology firm called The Experts — or other Navy authorities, said the first official, who added that the information remains preliminary and could change.

The report by Newport Police Sgt. Frank Rosa said he called local base security. “Based on the Naval Base implications and the claim that the involved subject, one (redacted) was ‘hearing voices’ I made contact with on duty Naval Station Police (redacted),” the report said. “I advised (redacted) of the report and the claims by Alexis. I then faxed (redacted) a copy of the report. (redacted) advised me that (redacted) would follow up on this subject and determine if he is in fact a naval base contractor.”

Federal authorities investigating are looking closely at the Newport incident for any indication about what may have motivated Alexis.

“Given that it is so close in time to this week’s events, there is an active fact-finding effort going on, leads have been farmed out to determine — if it is possible — what led up to this,” said a law enforcement official who is not authorized to comment publicly.

Civilian federal law enforcement authorities were not notified of the incident at the time, but the official said a report of a mentally disturbed individual — on its own — would likely not have been shared with the FBI in the normal course of business.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged that there appeared to be “red flags” in Alexis’ background that were not acted on.

“Should we have picked them up? Why didn’t we? How could we? All those questions need to be answered,” Hagel said. “Obviously something went wrong.”

Hagel said he has ordered reviews to examine the process for awarding security clearances and to look at base security.

Alexis had a secret security clearance from his time in the Navy Reserve. Such a clearance usually lasts 10 years, unless adverse information comes to the attention of his employer. Within the 10 years, there is no requirement to update a security clearance by checking with crime databases.

“The longer clearances go without review, there’s some jeopardy to that,” Hagel said.

The failure to raise an alarm about Alexis’ behavior shows a breakdown in the system for granting clearances, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chairs a panel on contracting oversight.

“This is one of the things that’s most troubling about this tragedy — that there would be police involvement with a military contractor where clearly he was hallucinating, and that we somehow don’t have a mechanism for that information to be quickly and effectively communicated in a way that the clearance can be removed,” McCaskill said. “At the very least, we’ve got to figure out those systems.”

Alexis had contact last month with another government agency — the Veterans Affairs Department — to complain about insomnia. He went to a VA emergency room in Providence, R.l., on Aug. 23 and another in Washington on Aug. 28, according to a statement from the department. He blamed his sleeplessness on his work schedule and was given small amounts of medication on the visits.

“On both occasions, Mr. Alexis was alert and oriented, and was asked by VA doctors if he was struggling with anxiety or depression, or had thoughts about harming himself or others, which he denied,” the statement says.

The failure to forward the information from the Newport police echoes two cases in 2009 in which law enforcement officials did not act on information that could have stopped two incidents -- the Nov. 5, 2009, murder of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, and the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Dec. 25.

FBI anti-terrorism officials did not alert military authorities that Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood killer, had sent numerous e-mails to terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki for almost a year leading up to the Fort Hood attack. In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man convicted of trying to blow up the Northwest Airlines flight, officials did not forward information provided to U.S. officials in Nigeria by Abdulmutallab’s father that his son was in Yemen and had extreme views.

Another senator chastised the Navy for another breakdown in communication.

“Clearly, the system did not work and this is not the first example of a breakdown,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who chairs the committee’s personnel subcommittee. “We need to fully examine this issue, not just looking backwards, but also forwards, and fully address solutions that will protect personal and national security.”

Alexis died in a shootout with police after he gunned down 12 employees at the Navy Yard, authorities have said.

Alexis had a history of encounters with law enforcement over firearms. Authorities in Texas in 2010 arrested him for firing a round through his apartment ceiling. He was not charged. In 2004 in Seattle, he shot the rear tires of a construction worker’s car after an altercation.

Despite those incidents, Alexis received and maintained a secret security clearance during his tenure in the Navy Reserve from 2008 to 2011.

Contributing: Kevin Johnson

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