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Few answers known weeks after Navy base shooting at Norfolk

Linehandlers standby as the guided-missile destroyer USS Mahan prepares to moor at Naval Station Norfolk on June 8, 2011, following a seven-month deployment.

It’s been three weeks since Jeffrey Tyrone Savage drove a tractor-trailer cab onto Norfolk Naval Station, parked near the end of a pier and boarded a destroyer. When a sailor on deck tried to stop him, Savage took her gun and then killed a sailor who’d come to help.

Soon, Savage was dead, too – shot by others who rushed to the scene.

Little else has been disclosed about what happened that night.

Exactly how did Savage, an unarmed civilian, get past checkpoints at a main gate and at the base of the Mahan’s pier? Why was he there? What did he want? Did he think he’d be allowed to walk unchecked onto a warship at the world’s largest Navy base?

If the Navy knows, it is not saying.

Officials have declined to answer such questions, citing two ongoing investigations.

One is being conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Another, headed by a one-star admiral, is examining whether base security procedures were followed.

On Friday, officials said they could not estimate when the investigations might wrap up.

As for motive, authorities have said only that they don’t think Savage, a 35-year-old felon, knew anyone on the Mahan or planned the attack, and it wasn’t related to terrorism.

As for how Savage got onto Norfolk Naval Station, a few details have been made public: He had a Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC card, an ID accepted to access Navy installations; he did not have a legitimate business reason to be on the base; and a guard who was at the gate, a federal police officer – not a sailor or a contractor – has been placed on leave.

Congress created the TWIC program in the wake of 9/11 to better protect the nation’s maritime transportation system, namely ports. The cards are issued by the Transportation Security Administration to workers who must regularly access secure port areas, such as longshoremen and truck drivers. To get one, they must pass a background screening.

The program was supposed to be running by 2003, but because of technological problems and other delays, the first cards were issued in 2007. Since then, the TSA has issued nearly 3 million. They cost workers about $130.

Although a range of crimes can disqualify an applicant, decisions to grant cards are subjective; the vast majority of waiver requests are approved, according to figures on the TSA’s website.

As examples of what to submit when seeking a waiver after an initial denial, TSA’s website suggests applicants send information about their post-conviction work and personal history and references who can attest to their character.

According to the TSA site, only a handful of crimes mean certain denial: espionage, sedition, treason and terrorism.

Criteria for contractors seeking access to regional Navy bases are stricter – applicants with any felony convictions within 10 years or certain misdemeanor convictions within five years are denied regional contractor badges.

Savage apparently was able to obtain a TWIC card despite serving prison time for a serious drug offense and voluntary manslaughter; he shot and killed a friend during an argument in a car in 2005.

According to the Navy command that oversees all of the service’s installations, the Navy began accepting TWIC cards for access to its bases in early 2010, when the Department of Defense required the service to do so.

Within a year, though, there were problems.

“By the end of 2010, (the Navy) became concerned that TWIC holders (were) entering into and remaining upon Navy installations for other than official purposes,” such as sightseeing and fishing, a spokesman for the installations command, Patrick Foughty, wrote in an email response to questions.

So in 2011, the Navy made a change. It began requiring truck drivers using TWIC cards to also show an official bill of lading or pickup order as proof of their business on base.

The Navy has declined to say what kind of interaction Savage had with gate guards the night of the shooting.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA, has not responded to repeated inquiries from The Virginian-Pilot about the TWIC program and Savage’s card.

Among the questions they have not answered: Whether the agency stands by its decision to issue Savage’s card, whether Savage required a waiver, whether voluntary manslaughter is ever a disqualifying offense, and whether the TWIC program is being reviewed or changed in light of what happened.

In a letter sent the week of the shooting to the Navy and DHS, Sen. Mark Warner called for a review of security procedures at military bases and said he had “grave concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the TWIC program.”

Warner met with officials from DHS, TSA and the Navy on Thursday, his spokesman, Kevin Hall, said. “After the briefing, Senator Warner is concerned that TSA doesn’t have the tools or the access it needs to conduct thorough background checks,” Hall said.

Already, it’s clear the Navy no longer trusts TWIC to vet workers coming onto bases: Days after the shooting, the service announced it was adding its own, stricter checks for TWIC card users at installations from Maine to North Carolina.

Base guards are turning away anyone with an outstanding warrant, a felony conviction in the past 10 years or a violent misdemeanor in the past five, plus habitual offenders, sex offenders and people with drug or larceny convictions.

By that criteria, Savage would have been denied.

The family of the slain sailor, Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark Mayo, held a funeral in the Washington, D.C., area Friday. Mayo, who was 24, will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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