The recent massive U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s data breach raised a lot of questions about security, but it wasn’t all just about cybersecurity. Mr. Christopher Kojm, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council and a visiting professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, made some interesting observations in a recent Wall Street Journal commentary, “Security Checks Need a 21st-Century Upgrade.”

A Relic of the Cold War

Kojm adeptly points out that “Washington’s security-clearance system is a relic of the Cold War that relies largely on self-reporting, lengthy questionnaires and interviews.” He goes on to say that “the goal should be to help employees restore constructive and productive behavior or, if unsuccessful, to remove them from the workforce before they do harm.”[1]

The same day Mr. Kojm’s column appeared, the Washington Post reported that six families that lost relatives at the Washington Navy Yard filed multi-million dollar wrongful death lawsuits claiming the Department of Defense contractors that hired Aaron Alexis, HP Enterprise Services LLC and its subcontractor The Experts, Inc., should have known about his violent background and unstable mental condition.[2]

While perpetrators of workplace violence incidents typically do not make direct threats prior to an incident, we know all too well that they do exhibit behaviors that concern others. Unfortunately, in most cases, this behavior is never reported to law enforcement.

A Classic Example: The 2013 Navy Yard Shooting

I’m sure you remember the Navy Yard shooting. Aaron Alexis fatally shot 12 people and injured three others in a mass shooting at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). The attack ended when Alexis was killed by police.

Questionable Behavior Known, but Undocumented

In March 2008, Alexis received a secret-level security clearance valid for ten years despite the following known behaviors that were not reported on his clearance application[3]:

  • Alexis was previously cited by the Navy on at least eight occasions for misconduct.
  • In 2004, he was arrested in Seattle, Washington for malicious mischief, after shooting out the tires of another man’s vehicle in what he later described as the result of an anger-fueled “blackout.”
  • In 2008, he was arrested in DeKalb County, Georgia for disorderly conduct.

After he was granted a clearance, he exhibited the following concerning behaviors including the legal purchase of a weapon:

  • In 2010, he was arrested in Fort Worth for discharging a weapon within city limits.
  • August 4, 2013 – Naval police were called to Alexis’ hotel at Naval Station Newport and found that he had “taken apart his bed, believing someone was hiding under it, and observed that Alexis had taped a microphone to the ceiling to record the voices of people that were following him.” At the time of the incident, he was working for the contractor at the base.
  • August 23, 2013 – Alexis presented himself at a Providence, Rhode Island VA emergency room complaining of insomnia.
  • August 28, 2013 – He sought treatment for insomnia in the emergency room of a VA medical center in Washington, D.C.
  • September 14, 2013 – Two days before the massacre, Alexis visited a small arms range in Lorton, Virginia, and tested an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. Alexis inquired about buying a handgun at the store, but was told federal law does not allow dealers to sell such guns directly to out-of-state customers. Alexis instead purchased a 12-gauge shotgun and two boxes of shells, after passing a state and federal background check.

4 Best Practices That Help Reduce the Risk of Workplace Violence

Government security checks should follow these best practice examples set by forward-thinking security directors in the private sector:

  1. Require Recurring Background Screening: Require employees to undergo background screening at regular intervals with alerts upon conviction of a crime. A lot can happen in someone’s life over a ten-year period, the length of Mr. Alexis’ clearance.
  2. Develop a Workplace Violence Prevention Strategy: Develop policies and procedures based on the individual needs of the company or agency to identify and act upon concerning behaviors of an employee.
  3. Create an Active Shooter Plan: Develop an active shooter plan to minimize casualties if an incident does occur.
  4. Monitor Social Media: In most cases of targeted violence, the perpetrator communicates to others concerning behaviors.

If you need assistance in these areas within your organization as part of a comprehensive plan, please reach out to me for more information.


[1] Kojm, Christopher. Security Checks Need a 21st Century Upgrade. Wall Street Journal. September 17, 2015.

[3]  Miller, Emily. Aaron Alexis Passed Two Background Checks. The Washington Times. September 17, 2013

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