When passing a checkpoint with armed guards on a military installation, there’s an expectation that you’re safe. Access to these areas is privileged, protected and screened. These are highly sensitive areas where our nation’s critical assets are retained, our nation’s troops and their families live, and millions of civilian personnel, military contractors, vendors and visitors enter every day. Military bases are virtual mini-cities that need to be protected from foreign and domestic individuals whose objective is to do harm.
But nothing is absolute. Nothing is foolproof. Security must always be built in layers. The tragic shooting at the Washington Navy Yard prompted a national discussion about how best to improve security at U.S. military facilities. This discussion is long overdue. If we are to truly improve security and more thoroughly screen contractors, vendors and others accessing military facilities, we need to address the root problems, not just the symptoms.
Conducting meaningful and relevant screenings of each individual regardless of level — whether occasional visitors, regular vendors or people with high-level security clearances — is the key to improving security at these facilities. However, a critical challenge to conducting effective screenings is the inherent flaws in the available information. Today, criminal history information is maintained in a disconnected patchwork of databases, files and watch lists maintained by federal and state law enforcement agencies and the courts. These data repositories are only as good as the data they contain and need vast improvements. Currently there’s no single government clearinghouse that contains 100-percent-complete, reliable and up-to-date criminal history records.
The United States has about 19,000 incorporated areas but no affordable system for law enforcement in which to consistently upload arrests and convictions information. Keeping and searching for accurate records is nearly impossible because some data is only available offline, and county court records are stored inconsistently: A record could exist as hard copy, microfiche or electronic file. With some understaffed court and government agencies, conviction records get lost, while others may not even be reported or retrievable in government databases.
These very imperfect data resources are what the government and private sector alike are relying on for security screenings. And even if these resources were made perfect, the growing consensus is that criminal history background checks are not enough.
A bipartisan group of senators — Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Susan Collins, R-Maine, Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. — has recently introduced much-needed legislation that would implement an ongoing, automated review of public records and databases for any information that might affect the security clearance status of individuals.
This is only a start. My company, Eid Passport Inc., does not issue security clearances, but our identity management program includes screenings of hundreds of thousands of vendors, suppliers and service providers who seek access to military bases. Conducting recurring screenings is something we have done for many years.
Our company’s RAPIDGate Program is used by many U.S. military bases as a key layer of security to identify and control access at a high level for the vendor population. We are trusted to help keep more than 150 federal facilities secure. For screenings, we search extensive court records, the federal PACER system, our commercial screening providers’ proprietary databases, and myriad government watch lists. Of the more than 350,000 screenings our program has conducted since 2001, one out of every 12 people did not pass the initial or subsequent screening. Thanks to our frequently recurring screenings — performed every three months for every cardholder — we are able to flag changes in criminal history and discover earlier criminal history not previously available.
We have strict standards, but we need help from Congress to make them even stricter. Given our firsthand knowledge and experience with screenings, any legislation that deserves an “aye” vote should increase the frequency of screenings and provide:
Greater access to critical criminal history databases, specifically the National Crime Information Center, for companies such as ours whose screenings are used for access to secured military bases.
Uniform access for all vendors and contractors at all facilities: Currently, a person barred from accessing a Navy facility may still be able to access Army, Coast Guard, Marine or Air Force facilities.
Uniform regulations on what disqualify an individual from entering facilities. For physical access to military bases, government standards typically focus on felony convictions, not also arrests. The tragic events at Washington Navy Yard suggest strongly that certain arrests may be indicative of future criminal behavior. While we fully embrace “innocent before proven guilty,” for screenings to become more effective, they must take into account all the relevant information that bears on an individual’s suitability for access to military facilities.
We have a rare opportunity in the aftermath of tragedy to address shortcomings in our country’s system. Preventing the next tragedy requires holistic solutions and better collaboration across levels of government and private industry. We must improve our systems now.
James Robell is the president and chief operating officer of Eid Passport Inc.