This week a civilian contractor named Aaron Alexis went on a shooting rampage at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., murdering a dozen people and wounding eight more before being killed by law enforcement personnel. What exactly is a civilian contractor? And how secure are American military bases? For answers, Manolith reached out “The Architect”, a currently-serving U.S. Army Special Forces Chief Warrant Officer. After all, the Architect knows about these things.
Some ex-Navy whackjob becomes a civilian contractor and uses that access to do a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. Can any crazy person become a civilian contractor for the government? Is there screening?
There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who are civilian contractors for various government agencies, including the military. They typically employ former military personnel. The government would not be able to function in any capacity that is recognizable to us without contractors. There is pre-employment screening of varying degrees done by defense contractors like any other company you would go to work for. Then there is screening conducted prior to the government awarding a security clearance, which are held by contractors with access to sensitive information on government programs. Crazy people apparently inhabit every facet of our society, and one who happened to work for a defense contractor finally went on a rampage, and now it provides the media with the opportunity to beat up on a segment of society that it loves to undermine at any opportunity with a deluge of inaccurate statements and outright lies. They might as well look into the fact that he was the second black ex-Navy guy within a year that went bonkers and shot up the place, for Christsakes.
I’d like to educate your readers on exactly what a security clearance is and is not. A clearance is not an assessment of how nice or good a guy you are – it is granted on the basis of if the government thinks you can be trusted to safeguard information up to the classification level of your clearance. There are two different types of security clearances: Secret and Top Secret. A Secret clearance is what was held by the Navy Yard shooter. It is held by nearly every single member of the Armed Forces, and is required for many defense contractor positions, and this is why they hire veterans – because they already possess the clearance. To apply for a clearance, you fill out a lengthy online form called an SF-86, where you list where you lived, who you worked for, who your family members are, etc. A Secret clearance requires basically only a criminal background check and a credit check – no personal interviews are necessary. Individual criminal acts don’t necessarily disqualify you from being granted a clearance, unless they show a pattern of poor judgment or involve drugs or alcohol-related incidents. What they will usually nail you on is poor credit, since the government feels that you are a high risk of selling our secrets to foreign governments if you suck with money.
Unless the shooter had been actually convicted of some sort of crime for all the crazy things he had done prior to this incident, there is no way the process for a Secret clearance would have caught it. An active clearance is good for five years, until another investigation is required to renew it. When offenses are committed after a clearance has been granted, it is the onus of the military unit or employer to report the crime or violation to the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office (DISCO) for consideration of a suspension or revocation. If this is not actively pursued, an offender can continue to hold a clearance.
Now, if the Navy Yard shooter had applied for a Top Secret clearance, he likely would have been denied one, since that involves an far more rigorous investigative process, where an official from the OPM (Office of Personnel Management), or a company that they have contracted with to handle the investigations, interviews all your friends, family and neighbors and you personally. This would have probably uncovered his insanity. For access to certain Sensitive Compartmented Information programs in the Top Secret world, they will even conduct polygraphs of the individual, either a Counter-intelligence Scope or a Lifestyle Scope, depending on the sensitivity level of the program. On a lifestyle scope you can expect to be treated to an intense interrogation exploring every aspect of your personality, especially including your sexual peccadilloes.
The bottom line is that in the post-9/11 world there was a need for many, many more people to have security clearances than in the past, and with that some folks are going to slip through the cracks.
What sorts of jobs do civilian contractors do?
Anything and everything you can think of, from flipping burgers in chow halls to conducting covert operations in foreign countries.
What are the benefits of using civilian contractors vs. soldiers?
The benefit is that it is much cheaper to use contracted companies for most functions than soldiers or full-time government service employees, known as “GS” workers, and allows the government to quickly “surge” resources towards an emerging, temporary need rather than to spend years building up a capacity for a need that may go away. For instance, our occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq meant that we needed a ton of chow halls built to feed everybody over there, pronto. If the Army was told to do it itself, it would have to take many Engineer units that could be out clearing mines or IEDs and make them build chow halls, which would take longer and be done less expertly than if they hired a construction company, who won’t get paid if the buildings are not up to spec. They would then have to tell their recruiters that they are going to have casino online bonus to trick many more teenagers into enlisting in the illustrious position of an Army cook, and after spending years finding, training, feeding, clothing, and housing tons more soldiers to serve as cooks, they finally would have a bunch of cooks on their hands that they would then be obliged to let remain in the Army for the rest of their careers, and pay for their retirement and health care.
Instead, the Army hired a company that immediately brought over shitloads of Filipinos to cook our food at the various chow halls in Afghanistan and Iraq for about $10 a day per cook. We got great food, the Army saved tons of money, and lots of Filipinos returned to their country after serving for a few years at our bases where they live like kings off the paltry sum that we paid them. Everybody wins.
What are the downsides to using civilian contractors, besides the obvious “they go crazy and shoot up the place”?
The downside is the lack over oversight that comes from having such a large contractor workforce that leads to fraud, waste and abuse. Much of this comes from the government’s penchant for affirmative action. For instance, a defense contractor owned by an American Indian (especially if that person is an Eskimo), a black female, or a Service Disabled Veteran always gets precedence in contract awards, even if they are not capable of actually conducting the work. An Eskimo-owned company notorious for dubious practices called Alutiiq was the subject of this article in the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/29/AR2010092906342.html
How do active duty military dudes view civilian contractors? Are they looked up to? Scoffed at?
Mostly they are just invisible to soldiers, part of the background. The only contractors that soldiers were jealous of were the former spec-ops guys rocking $800-a-day mobile security gigs in Iraq, back when that kind of work came with a big paycheck. Now they are getting less than half that.
What’s the most messed up thing you’ve ever seen a civilian contractor do?
I’ve deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as both a soldier and a contractor, and could blow your hair back with any number of stories about outrageous behavior on the part of each category. The difference is when a contractor fucks up, the government can fire him on the spot and take away his access badge, and put him on the next thing smoking back to the States. You have to convene a court martial for a soldier to get him out, and it takes basically an act of Congress to fire a Government Service civilian employee, and that’s after you’ve dealt with his “hostile workplace environment” lawsuit. While contractors may fly under the radar occasionally, they are much easier to get rid of.
How secure are places like the Washington Navy Yard?
It is as secure as any other military installation in the country (if you aren’t familiar with that installation definition, it means that it is a military base of operations or camp). There are armed guards at the gate (who may be civilian contractors as well) who check to make sure that you have a valid CAC (Common Access Card), which is either a military or contractor ID card that allows you access to the base. These people and their vehicles are typically not searched, unless there is a clear reason to do so or an enhanced security posture at the base. Visitors are also allowed on post with a valid reason, and their vehicles are searched. It is not feasible to search every person and vehicle entering a military installation – it would make life completely unbearable for all. When Ft. Bragg went to Threat Condition DELTA the day after 9/11, while I was beginning the Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course, I literally sat inside of a cattle truck that was stuck in a line of cars outside the base from 1 A.M to 7:30 A.M. while they subjected each and every vehicle and person to thorough searches. This type of activity is not sustainable in the long term.
How secure are places like Fort Bragg or bases overseas? What factors go into how secure a military base needs to be?
Fort Bragg is as secure as any other base is. Prior to 9/11, it was actually an open post, accessible to all, with a highway that ran right through the middle of it. There are certain units or commands (the Joint Special Operations Command for instance) on Ft. Bragg which have their own compounds with higher levels of security than a standard main gate. Bases overseas in hostile areas of course have additional layers of security – in Afghanistan, for example, they typically have a ring of local security that will search vehicles before they get to the inner ring of security manned by U.S. personnel, so that the indigenous forces can absorb any suicide bombs before they get to our guys. Occasionally this system fails when the bad guys arrive with numerous truck bombs in succession.
Since the shooter at the Navy Yard was ex-Navy, is it safe to assume that the kill ratio would’ve been higher if he’d been ex-Army Special Forces?
Not necessarily. While an SF guy who employed his training an expertise could certainly come up with a plan of attack that could lead to far more casualties than this particular shooting, anybody who would do something like this is clearly mentally unhinged and therefore probably unable to think clearly and employ the full spectrum of his tactical knowledge. There are only so many people you can kill by merely strolling into a crowded place and beginning blasting before you are overcome or everybody manages to escape – but that is the typical tactic of these mass shooters because of their mental imbalance. Hopefully, we don’t have a combat experienced SOF veteran who is able to think clearly and rationally despite being crazed go on a rampage in the future.