THE tragedy of the Navy Yard shootings has gripped Washington. Many dimensions of this episode call for deep assessment: How could a clearly troubled man bring a weapon into a highly secure venue only to gun down government workers? How can we prevent such incidents in the future?
Much has been made of the fact that Aaron Alexis had a security clearance. That was not the cause of this incident, but it probably contributed by creating complacency in security officers at the Navy Yard. I have been critical of our nation's security clearance procedures, but I hope Congress moves thoughtfully - and not in haste to score political points - to address this issue. Mistakes are invariably made when we legislate in fear and anger.
The murders by Alexis and the betrayal by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden both underscore a problem with our security clearance process.
Fundamentally, the United States has a "perimeter security" system: A government adjudicator guards the gate, deciding who should be allowed through. But once clearance is granted, there is little further substantive assessment of an individual's behavior or activities.
Clearances are supposed to be updated every five years, but that is not always observed. The process, which grew out of the bitter experiences with spies early in the Cold War, is obsolete.
For example, applicants are still asked to identify every home they have lived in, and U.S. workers try to interview neighbors in each place. There is no differentiation between new college graduates and government workers who have held clearances for decades.
Recently, a colleague who is a former deputy secretary of a major Cabinet department submitted his SF-86, as the clearance form is known. It ran 256 pages. He has been cleared nine times yet still has to fill out the same form everyone else submits.
Once you hold a clearance, however, it is generally carried over if you change jobs. Snowden's peripatetic career is typical. Snowden should have been under intense, ongoing surveillance, not because of his personal behavior but because of the sensitivity of his position.
His job was to move massive files to different computer networks in the NSA system. I can't imagine a more sensitive job these days.
Steady surveillance ought to be a condition of employment in such a position. I continue to hold special clearances, some of extraordinary sensitivity. The government should monitor me steadily because of the sensitivity of these programs, and I should expect such surveillance as a condition of my government work.