Security at Navy Yard weak, surveillance expert says

The Washington Navy Yard, a former shipyard where Monday’s fatal shootings occurred, has a history of weak security with past reports citing poor entrance controls, video dead spots, inadequate lighting, malfunctioning alarms and other problems.

Building 197, which houses the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters on the 65-acre campus along the Anacostia River, was the main site of the gunfire that claimed 13 lives, including that of the killer identified by police as Aaron Alexis, 34, of Fort Worth, Texas.

James Atkinson, a former military intelligence officer who now heads Granite Island Group in Gloucester, Mass., said the Navy hired his surveillance security firm in 2009 to test newly installed electronic security gates and other access controls inside Building 197.

The “controlled penetration” test revealed that a tamper sensor wasn’t working because of a design defect and that hardware store-variety screws had been used to secure the main access-control panel instead of more expensive screws that could only be loosened with a specific screwdriver, Atkinson said.

“We found not only had people opened it up, but there were traces that somebody had placed a device inside that was recording data, so somebody could hoax the unit and claim to be a person they were not,” Atkinson said.

More broadly, in two dozen probes over previous years, Atkinson’s firm found major security lapses throughout the facility, among them doors jammed open with pieces of cardboard, “crisscrossed” video cameras pointed at one another, too few cameras and bad lighting at night.

“The security there is extraordinarily poor,” Atkinson said. “They need more cameras, better door security, better lighting. The access controls were appalling. The Washington Navy Yard has security that is below the level of security you see at Harvard or MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) or Boston University or any other major campus.”

Mo Schumann, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to discuss security at the Washington Navy Yard, but she said there have been broader security upgrades at military facilities.

“Since the shootings at Fort Hood, the Department of Defense has taken a number of steps to harden our facilities and establish new systems to prevent and respond to active shooter threats,” Schumann said, referring to a 2009 shooting at an Army base in Texas that left 12 dead and 31 wounded.

A mid-level civilian employee who’s worked at the Navy Yard for more than a decade said security upgrades are long overdue.

“They’ll check your badge and they’ll check your car to make sure it has a Naval District of Washington current sticker, but you can drive through the base with a bazooka in your trunk and they wouldn’t know,” said the employee, who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly.

“They don’t check inside the car,” he said. “You can drive in with a ham sandwich, a banana and a pistol in your lunch bag, and they don’t check. It’s pretty bad.”

The Navy Yard is part of the Washington’s Waterfront region, a neighborhood in transition with Nationals Stadium, baseball home to the Washington Nationals, on its edge, condo buildings going up and new restaurants and bars opening.

Even though the Navy Yard is a military facility, security is tighter at some non-military campuses in the Washington region.

At the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., for example, every visiting car is stopped, its underside is examined with mirrors, and guards sweep the trunk and cabin interior.

After its founding in 1799, the Navy Yard was the nation’s biggest shipyard, making military ships and munitions that served in major conflicts through World War II. It now serves as one of the Navy’s procurement hubs, buying parts and materials to build and maintain the nation’s fleet of ships and submarines.

Under military base consolidations over the past decade, several intelligence agencies have leased offices there, among them the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, so some areas of the Navy Yard require higher security clearances to enter.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which is helping the FBI, Washington police and other law enforcement agencies probe the shootings, also has a large center at the Navy Yard.

The site is also home to some of the service’s top brass, including the chief of naval operations, who lives on the grounds.

A retired admiral, who also requested anonymity in order to provide honest assessments, said the public has some access to the Navy Yard in order to visit the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, and there’s a new waterfront park along its southern border.

“They’ve always tried to find the sweet spot between enhanced security and providing access,” the admiral said. “If people wanted to come up (the river) in a dingy and go over the seawall, it wouldn’t be overly challenging. But that’s true in a lot of (military) facilities. There are access points to (nearby) Fort McNair and Fort Myer with relatively low walls that are patrolled episodically. We have not garrisoned our military installations. In fact, there is a whole school of thought that says why make military facilities hard targets when terrorists are more likely to hit an elementary school or a hospital.”

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, delegate to the House of Representatives from the District of Columbia, disagreed with the detractors.

“The (Navy Yard) facility is one of the most secure facilities in the District of Columbia,” she said.

Marisa Taylor, Kevin Hall, Tom Hall, Lindsay Wise, Greg Gordon and Jonathan S. Landay contributed.

By James Rosen McClatchy Washington Bureau