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Security a concern after Norfolk Naval Station shooting

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.

NORFOLK, Va. — The assailant rolled his 18-wheeler onto Norfolk Naval Station Monday night, waved through Gate 5 after showing his credentials.

He parked near the piers and, using the same card, walked through a second manned checkpoint. He was not armed and again, was not stopped.

It was only when he approached the guided missile destroyer Mahan, moored at Pier 1, that the man garnered any suspicion.

The next moments turned violent. He wrested a weapon from the petty officer of the watch, who was standing guard and tried to stop him. He then fatally shot a sailor who came to help before the attacker was shot and killed, the commander of Norfolk Naval Station said.

The deadly breach at 11:20 p.m. on the waterfront of the Navy's largest base demonstrated once again how vulnerable military installations are to attacks - not only from external terrorist threats but from insiders who've been entrusted with access in the normal course of business. A civilian contractor opened fire at the Washington Navy Yard in September, killing 12 people.

At Norfolk Naval Station, there are tens of thousands of trusted insiders. More than 120,000 people in Hampton Roads are authorized to access the region's bases for work. Tens of thousands of vehicles come and go daily.

"To fully secure a base of this size, you would have to shut it down," said Joe Bouchard, a retired Navy captain who was commanding officer of Norfolk Naval Station from 2000 to 2003. "It would not be able to carry out its mission."

The Navy did not release the names of the sailor who died or his attacker. An investigation was under way Tuesday, but few details were released.

At an afternoon news conference Tuesday, Capt. Robert Clark, the base commander, gave a short statement and briefly answered questions.

Clark said the assailant entered the base with a government-issued Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC card, which allows civilians to access certain secure port areas without an escort. The TWIC program was created a decade ago, primarily to ensure security at civilian marine terminals. But the government ID cards are also sometimes used to access military bases.

Asked whether he thought Monday's shooting showed strengths or weaknesses in the Navy's security procedures, Clark said, "I would say force protection is working."

He added, "I wouldn't say it affects the way that we necessarily screen people, but it's going to make us look at our procedures and make sure that we tighten up, to make sure we are doing everything we are supposed to."

To get a TWIC card, a worker must provide personal information, including fingerprints, and pass a background check conducted by the civilian Transportation Security Administration. Workers pay approximately $130 for a card and must reapply every five years.

Some of that information, including the fingerprints, is embedded in the card. But since the TWIC program was created, it has faced questions about its cost and usefulness, especially because some installations don't have devices to read the cards. Norfolk Naval Station is among them.

Instead, guards at gates and security checkpoints make sure the people presenting TWIC cards match the photos on the cards.

A civilian who presents a TWIC card at Norfolk Naval Station or other installations should have a specific reason to be there, Bouchard said. Guards typically would not allow a TWIC card holder onto a pier if they hadn't been told ahead of time, he said. It's unclear whether that was the case Monday.

Norfolk Naval SSecutation implemented sweeping security upgrades after Sept. 11, 2001. Back then, guards would allow a car to pass through the gate simply if it had a Department of Defense decal on the windshield. After the terrorist attacks, the Navy went to 100 percent ID checks, which slowed traffic but boosted security.

"We had to strike a balance between security and operational requirements," said Bouchard, who oversaw many of those changes. "With each decision, you have to weigh security versus smooth operation of the base."

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, offered their condolences during a morning budget hearing before the House Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee. "The sailors, particularly those of the USS Mahan, are in our thoughts and prayers today, as well as the entire Norfolk Naval Station family," Greenert said.

"We will find out what happened and prevent that from occurring again," said Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of Fleet Forces Command, speaking at a forum on energy use Tuesday. Gortney asked for a moment of silence "for a shipmate we lost last night and his family."

The base went on lockdown for about 45 minutes after the shooting. It was operating normally Tuesday except for Pier 1, where the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was working, the Navy said.

An official with knowledge of the investigation said the assailant's truck had been towed to an impound lot where it was being examined. Investigators believe the driver entered the base shortly before the incident, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss details and asked not to be identified.

Officers, chiefs and duty section personnel were ordered to report to the Mahan on Tuesday, but others were told to stay home. Counselors were called in to meet with grieving sailors.

Monday night's shooting came about a month after the Navy held anti-terrorism and force protection exercises around the world, including an active-shooter drill at Norfolk Naval Station.

A week ago, the Pentagon released a series of recommendations to improve base security after last year's shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. A civilian contractor, Aaron Alexis, killed 12 people before shooting himself. Gortney helped lead the review. Among the recommendations was a continuous evaluation system to routinely update background checks of people who hold security clearances to access military installations.

The Mahan returned to Norfolk in September after an 8-1/2-month deployment that included time in the Mediterranean Sea because of the civil war in Syria. The ship was commissioned in 1998 and has a crew of about 250 sailors and officers, according to a Navy website.
 

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