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New Info on Navy Yard Shooter

Aired September 17, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, the Navy Yard gunman, psychological problems, his weapons, and his deadly shoot-out with police. We have new details every hour about the man behind the massacre.

Plus, after the D.C. shooting, there's a new investigation of security at U.S. military facilities worldwide. I will ask the Navy's chief spokesman what needs to be changed. And tributes to the 12 victims. We now know all their names, many of their stories, including the pilot, the animal lover, and the mother of a new bride.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The Washington, D.C., police chief says Aaron Alexis walked into the Washington Navy Yard determined to kill as many people as possible. And now the question is why. We're learning more about the 34-year-old I.T. contractor, the former Navy reservist, including his apparent history of deep psychological problems.

We got an update from authorities just a little while ago on yesterday's shooting rampage that left 12 people dead and Alexis dead himself.

Our crime and justice correspondent, Joe Johns, is joining us now from outside the Washington Navy Yard with more on the very latest.

What are you learning, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: There were a lot of neon signs that were missed. And here's another one. Aaron Alexis, the shooter, went to a firearm practice range the day before the shooting and even practiced and bought a shotgun legally. All the more reason to wonder why no one was able to connect the dots.


JOHNS (voice-over): The first of what likely will be many remembrances for the victims killed in the Navy Yard rampage, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laying a wreath and a moment of silence at D.C.'s professional baseball stadium just a few blocks away from the crime scene.

As the city of Washington starts on the long road back to normalcy, dramatic new details are emerging of the attack that left 12 victims dead, including a fuller description of the running gun battles between the gunman and active shooter teams.

CATHY LANIER, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA POLICE CHIEF: Literally two minutes after the call was dispatched we had officers at the gates, arriving on the scene, within seven minutes had officers at the building, entering the building to engage in active shooter as shots were actively being fired. We had officers who heroically went into a building, witnessing multiple casualties and continued to pursue and engage a gunman who was determined to kill as many people as possible.

JOHNS: A picture is also emerging of the troubled last weeks of the shooter, Aaron Alexis, a man who friends say cycled between outgoing, friendly and pleasant on one day to dark and troubled, even hearing voices on the next.

August 7, police in Rhode Island reported speaking with Alexis about a harassment complaint. He said three people were following him, keeping him awake, sending vibrations through his body. On August 25, authorities say he arrived in the Washington area. And on September 7, he checked into a Residence Inn in Southwest D.C. where he was apparently staying up until the shooting on the 16th.

VALERIE PARLAVE, D.C. FBI FIELD OFFICE: At this time we believe Mr. Alexis entered Building 197 at the Navy Yard with a shotgun. We do not have any information at this time that he had an AR-15 in his possession. We also believe Mr. Alexis may have gained access to a handgun once inside the facility and after he began shooting.

JOHNS: Leaving many questions unanswered about his state of mind, his access and his motives.


JOHNS: A government employee staying at that hotel last week says she spoke with Aaron Alexis three times, twice on Tuesday, once on Wednesday. On Tuesday she said he was warm, engaging, personable. On Wednesday she said he was withdrawn, clearly troubled. No reason why, she says the change in demeanor -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Joe, thank you. Joe Johns reporting.

The Pentagon say it's now launching an investigation into security at U.S. military facilities worldwide. As a civilian contractor, Aaron Alexis had a valid pass to get into Building 197 where he opened fire. The shooting, though, is renewing questions about why the U.S. military hires so many outside contractors and whether those contractors are being vetted well enough to get top security clearances.

Drew Griffin of CNN Investigations has been looking into this part of the story.

What are you learning, Drew?

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Aaron Alexis, he never had security clearance when he was in the Navy. And even though he was discharged from the military and had a list of questionable incidents, he was able to secure that secret or mid-level clearance as a contractor. How did that happen? That's really the big question here because everyone we have talked to today said it should not have happened.

Alexis had what is controlled a controlled access card, a CAC card from September 2012, when he first gained security clearance to work for a defense contract company. That company is called The Experts. Initially, he worked in Japan, at a U.S. military base.

This summer after being re-cleared again, according to his employer, he began working at a string of military installations up and down the Eastern Seaboard, six of them, before finally beginning a project at the U.S. Navy Yard. That, we believe, just starting last week.

BLITZER: You know, Drew, I guess the question is, when you say that the question is how did he get these security clearances, is that because he had so many run-ins earlier with the law or the misconduct that he was accused of doing while he was in the U.S. Navy reserves?

GRIFFIN: Yes. And even more importantly, the latter. He had that poor record with the Navy. He's in the Navy just three-and-a- half years, racks up eight disciplinary issues ranging from insubordination to disorderly conduct.

And it includes what the military calls non-judicial punishment. We're told, Wolf, that is a huge red flag. Add to that a shooting incident in Seattle in 2004. He's jailed in Georgia for an outburst at a nightclub. That happened in 2008. Firing into the ceiling of an apartment in Texas in 2010. All of that information easily found by anyone just doing a limited search of this guy's background.

BLITZER: So what's the explanation?

GRIFFIN: There isn't one. And that's what's so frustrating about covering this story and certainly will be frustrating for the victims.

The CEO of this company tells me last night they followed all the rules. There were no problems with this guy. He worked fine all summer long. Today that company issued a release saying this: "We enlisted a service to perform two background checks, and we confirmed twice through the Department of Defense his secret government clearance. The latest background check and security clearance confirmation were in late June of 2013."

And listen to this, "revealed no issues other than one minor traffic violation." Quite frankly, that is hard to believe. A 12- year-old doing a research project on this guy could have found much more than a traffic violation. We have been trying to call back and get specifics from this company. We haven't been able to get any answers back yet today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's see if we can. Drew, thanks very much.

Joining us now, a special guest, the chief spokesman for the United States Navy, the Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Admiral, thanks very much for coming in.

Was there a major blunder here? What happened?

We're taking a look at that right now, Wolf.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NAVY: We're looking at his entire service record in the Navy. We're trying to dissect it, do the forensics.

See what red flags if any were missed and if there's an accounting to be done for it, to do that.


BLITZER: Have you come up with some initial explanations, how this guy could get this kind of security clearance?

KIRBY: He got a security clearance when he enlisted in the Navy shortly after that in 2007. It was good for 10 years. And it was at the secret level.

So the security clearance was valid when he left the Navy in 2011. And because he wasn't out of work very long before he took this next job, the security clearance went with him. But again we're taking a look at all these reports of run-ins with the law to see if anything should have been differently right now.

BLITZER: I know this is not directly your charge, but an outside contractor, working for the Navy, let's say, gets security clearances through other outside contractors who outsourced the initial security clearance process?

KIRBY: There are plenty of security clearance companies that do help us with vetting these people.

BLITZER: Is that appropriate?

KIRBY: It's a common practice, but I will tell you that the government maintains the final approval authority on security clearances.

BLITZER: But an outside contractor, the initial phase says this guy is OK, it almost always goes through this process.

KIRBY: Well, yes, but remember this clearance that was granted to this individual was done while he was on active duty in the Navy. We're not talking about a security clearance granted by a contractor for Mr. Alexis. That was granted to him by the U.S. Navy and by the government.

BLITZER: So he kept that security clearance while in the Navy despite eight incidents of misconduct in the Navy?

KIRBY: Look, he wasn't a stellar sailor. We know that. (CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Tell us about these eight incidents. What were some of the problems that he did?

KIRBY: They were by and large relatively minor.

BLITZER: Like what?

KIRBY: Insubordination, dereliction of duty, failing to show up for work repeatedly on schedule, on time.

BLITZER: That sounds pretty serious to me.

KIRBY: They're not -- they're not grievously serious.

I mean, they are offenses for which somebody can be taken to non- judicial punishment, which is not a court-martial. It's more of an administrative hearing. And the punishments are fairly mild for some of those offenses. Now, he did have quite a few over the time of his service.

BLITZER: Because I could understand one or two and then you sort of move on. But eight times, he was disciplined, and eight times he was allowed to stay in the Navy?

KIRBY: He was.

But there was a process that was being proposed to administratively separate him from the Navy. That process did not go to complete completion.


KIRBY: We're trying to work that out.

BLITZER: It should have, obviously.

KIRBY: It was a proposal that perhaps he should be administratively discharged with something less than an honorable discharge. But he volunteered to leave the Navy early, got an honorable discharge and left the Navy.

BLITZER: Was that like a plea bargain in effect? You can leave early, you will get an honorable discharge. If you stay in, it could be a general discharge, which is sort of the middle, or a dishonorable discharge.

KIRBY: Even the recommendation for a general could have been and might have been overturned. Again, we're trying to work our way through all this right now. It just happened yesterday. But clearly this was not a sailor that had a stellar record. We understand that. But he did get out of the Navy with an honorable discharge. He did get out of the Navy with that secret clearance. And again we're working...


BLITZER: Because when I spoke to Senator Richard Blumenthal today from Connecticut, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he was deeply concerned that because he had that honorable discharge from the Navy, that opened up the door to him to get this job as an outside defense contractor, if you will. You have an honorable discharge. You served in the Naval reserves. You get a job with this company and then obviously we know what happened yesterday.

KIRBY: We understand the senator's concerns.

We certainly share those. But I will also say that looking at the offenses while he was in the Navy, the offenses while he was in uniform, none of those give you an indication that he was capable of this sort of brutal, vicious violence.

Did it make him a stellar sailor? No. We're looking at the processes by which he was separated. But nothing there gave you an indication that he was capable of doing this to other people.

BLITZER: Nobody had any inkling of the motive or hatred or anything along these lines?

KIRBY: No, sir.

BLITZER: All right, I don't want you to leave. Stay with us. We have got some more questions.

John Kirby, rear admiral the United States Navy, the chief spokesman for the U.S. Navy. we're going to continue the questioning. Our special coverage of the Navy Yard shooting resumes right after this.

Also, the 12 victims who didn't make it out of the Navy Yard alive. Family members, they are speaking to us. They are telling us about their loved ones, what made them all so special.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Let's continue the conversation now with the chief spokesman for the United States Navy, Rear Admiral John Kirby.

What do we know or what do you know specifically about his mental health while he served in the U.S. Navy?

KIRBY: Again, we don't have any indications right now that there were mental health issues while he was on active duty. I have seen the reports that he sought some mental health care when he left from the VA.

BLITZER: He went to the VA hospital twice apparently seeking some sort of psychiatric help.

KIRBY: We have seen those reports.


BLITZER: Have you gone to the VA and asked them?

KIRBY: We are in discussions with the VA. I have not been able to confirm those press reports.

But certainly we encourage our people if they feel they need some mental health care to go seek it. That he went to seek mental health care is not something that should not be commended.

BLITZER: It was good that he did it, but the fact that he did it -- I'm not familiar with the process. He goes to a VA hospital twice. He says he has some mental health issues. That wouldn't necessarily affect getting his security clearances updated?


As a matter of fact, we don't want that to be the case. You have heard military leaders say this for the last few years. We want soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines to come forward if they think they have a mental health issue and seek the care, and to not have to fear the stigma or an affect on their career or their security clearance.

BLITZER: What about the criminal behavior, the allegations he shot into somebody's tires, shot into a neighbor's apartment, all these incidents that we now know about?

KIRBY: There are many reasons why a security clearance can be reviewed and revoked. Certainly, criminal behavior of a violent nature is one of those things.

That's what I said earlier. We're doing the forensics on these reports to see if there were things we missed, red flags that we should go back and look that. And if there's an accounting to be had for that, and we will certainly come forward with it.

BLITZER: Just to be precise, when he enlisted in the Navy reserves, he did get secret security clearances?

KIRBY: He was granted a security clearance shortly after his enlistment in 2007.


KIRBY: He went through a normal process.

BLITZER: Normal. And so the Navy gave him that, those security clearances?

KIRBY: That's correct.

BLITZER: He went through a background check. It wasn't some outside contractor who did it. The U.S. gave him the secure, secured, not top secret, not secured, compartmented information, higher, but the secret clearances, and he retained that throughout his active duty?

(CROSSTALK) KIRBY: It was good for 10 years. And so he left in 2011, which meant it still had several years left on it.

BLITZER: But when you say it's good for 10 years, don't they have to renew it every six months or every year or so? They review those clearances?

KIRBY: There are periodic reviews, but the clearance stays good for 10 years. Now, when you leave the Navy...


BLITZER: As he did.

KIRBY: As he did in 2011, if you're out of employment for -- or don't need a clearance for more than two years, then the clearance no longer is valid, and you have to go through the whole process over again.

He was not out of work for that long. And I don't know exactly when he started with this company, The Experts, but it was inside that two-year window, so his clearance stayed valid.

BLITZER: When he gets this outside clearance through this outside contractor, when he goes to work for this consulting firm The Experts or whatever, do they then go to the Navy, this outsource contractor who does security clearances, and reviews his record in the Navy?

KIRBY: I can't speak for the company that he hired, but I think there's a little bit of a misunderstanding there.

As I understand it, the clearance stayed valid. So when he went to go work for The Experts, it came with him. There wasn't another background investigation done for a new security clearance. We're talking about the same clearance that he had when he was in the Navy.

BLITZER: Tell us what the secretary of defense ordered today as far as a worldwide security review in the aftermath of this tragedy that occurred yesterday.

KIRBY: That's right. Secretary Hagel and Secretary Mabus ordered the same thing for Navy and Marine Corps installations as well, a quick look assessment for security procedures, physical security procedures, at our bases across the country.

Secretary Hagel expanded that worldwide for security, both physical and personnel security. In other words, I think part of this is to look at the security clearance process as well for military bases and folks worldwide.

BLITZER: So you're obviously doing an after-action review right now to make sure that this never, ever happens again.

KIRBY: We absolutely are taking a look at it. We're doing the forensics inside the Navy and in particular on this individual. But Secretary Hagel wants a broader look for everybody and we're obviously going to support that effort.

BLITZER: As he should do. Good luck with this review. Thanks very much, Rear Admiral John Kirby.

KIRBY: Thank you. Thank you.

BLITZER: He's the chief spokesman for the United States Navy.

KIRBY: Thank you.

BLITZER: When we come back, we will remember the 12 victims, the people who died at the Washington Navy Yard yesterday.


BLITZER: Yet another shooting tragedy in the headlines causing shock and pain across the nation.

But the loss is the greatest right now for the families of those 12 people who were shot down in the Navy Yard here in Washington. We now know all the victims' names. We know some of their stories as well.

Erin McPike has been listening to family members. She's joining us now.

What are you hearing, Erin?

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, many of the victims' families have just been notified within the last 24 hours or so. So most of them don't want to talk in person to us yet, as you can understand, but many of these families have sent us written statements and some photos to help us remember their loved ones.


PATRICIA ARNOLD, MOTHER OF SHOOTING VICTIM: It's not possible. It's not possible that they shot him for just no reason.

MCPIKE (voice-over): A dozen families are mourning today after losing their loved ones in Monday's shooting rampage at Washington's Navy Yard.

Michael Arnold was a pilot Lorton, Virginia.

ARNOLD: He loved his country, he loved the Navy. He loved flying. He was just a happy person.

MCPIKE: All 12 were civilians, working at what should be one of the safest places in Washington. The youngest was 46, and the oldest 73.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We all are civil servants working for the Department of the Navy.

MCPIKE: Most of the victims' family members are still too distraught today to speak about their loved ones yet. But some of them did pass along old photographs and shared memories.

Kathy Gaarde's husband said she was a caring daughter, fantastic mother, wife and best friend for 43 years. The Gaarde family is asking for donations sent in her honor to the Virginia branch of the Humane Society because she was an animal lover.

Martin Bodrog of Annandale, Virginia, graduated from the Naval Academy and spent 22 years as an officer in the Navy. His family said he was often wearing a Boston Bruins uniform and shorts even in the snow walking his dog and helping shovel all the driveways of his elderly neighbors.

Mary DeLorenzo Knight pictured here taught classes at a Virginia community college in addition to her job at the Navy Yard. She celebrated her daughter's wedding just three months ago. And Vishnu Pandit's children sent along this photo, calling their father a kind and gentle man.

Kenneth Proctor's youngest son, Kendall (ph), posted this photo of his father, who also died Monday. Six others lost their lives this week, including John Roger Johnson, Gerald Read, Sylvia Frasier, Frank Kohler, Arthur Daniels, and Richard Michael Ridgell.


MCPIKE: Now, almost all of these victims were middle-aged adults, and many of them have young adult children and teenage children, and we should be thinking of them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Erin McPike, our deepest, deepest condolences to all these families. Our heart goes out to all of them. Thanks very much for that report.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

"CROSSFIRE" starts right now.