Fort Hood shooting raises question: How safe can military bases really be?

Recent security upgrades focus on early detection

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Enhanced preventative security procedures at military bases didn’t stop four people from being shot dead and 16 others wounded Wednesday at Fort Hood, Texas.

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It was the second time in five years that the nation’s largest active duty armored post was the site of a deadly shooting. In 2009, Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and left more than 30 more wounded as part of a terrorist act.

After the Hasan attack, the Pentagon passed ramped up active shooter response preparedness, but all other recommendations focused on early detection of threats.

Following the first incident at Fort Hood, the Webster Commission sent 18 recommendations to the FBI regarding its handling of early knowledge that Hasan was linked to terrorists, and in 2011 a congressional panel determined that the massacre at Fort Hood could have been prevented if the military had made a better distinction between violent Islamic extremism and protected religious practices.

More recently, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced in March steps that the Department of Defense was taking to improve security at military installations as a response to the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard shooting in September 2013 that left 12 people dead.

Hagel spoke of gaps in DOD’s ability to “detect, prevent and respond to instances where someone working for us — a government employee, member of our military, or a contractor — decides to inflict harm on this institution and its people.” The changes largely focused on training military personnel to look at arrest records and use measures outside of a security clearance to screen military recruits.

Despite questions about how another shooting could take place, security experts and the Pentagon say the opportunity for additional, effective safety measures is limited.

“It’s a daunting task. Most people don’t realize the sheer size of a military base like Ft. Hood,” Fred Burton a former counterterrorism agent who works at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence consulting firm. “This is a small city with its own police department — it’s got all of the problems of any city behind its face — society’s problems don’t stop at the gates leading onto a military base, all of the mental health issues, criminal issues, drugs, drinking and domestic disputes continue.”

The gunman on Wednesday, 34-year-old Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, was an Iraq war veteran. He brought an unauthorized .45-caliber pistol onto the base, opened fire and then shot himself in the head. Standard base procedures do not require searching all vehicles for weapons or suspicious materials.

At a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday, Col. Steve Warren said military installations do perform random searches of people entering bases looking for unauthorized weapons, but he said it would be “untenable” to search everyone at posts as large as Fort Hood.  Warren said the Pentagon is leaving it up to local commands to decide whether to increase random searches in vehicles entering bases.

Security experts echo the DOD’s decision, agreeing that measures mandating a search of all vehicles and personnel coming in and out of military bases would be unrealistic. They say securing military sites is extremely hard, largely because of their sheer size. Fort Hood is 340 square miles with thousands of people entering and exiting the base on a daily basis.

“When you start looking at how you protect and secure these facilities it becomes a challenge, meaning it’s almost impossible to screen a person coming onto a military base as the same degree as you would coming into the White House because you would have grid lock for twenty miles,” Burton said.

Following the first Fort Hood shooting in 2009, the military enacted the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training initiative to train military police officers on how to deal with active shooter situations.

“They were fairly well prepared for even the first event that happened. Their civilian police force was actively trained,” said J. Pete Blair, director of research for the advanced law enforcement rapid response training center at Texas State University. “After the actual event in 2009 ... they did a lot of work on improving their responses to make sure that everyone wasn’t going to sit and wait for SWAT while people were being murdered — which was standard procedure before Columbine — but instead were going to engage.”

Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, said of the most recent Fort Hood shooting that “everything that could have been done was done. I think that the expectations of many, especially inside the Beltway, in terms of what can be done on a practical operational level are unrealistic.”

Col. Warren said that the key to avoiding base shootings in the future is to amp up early warning systems “to identify those suspected to be a threat to themselves and others ... sooner.”

Warren also announced that the military enacted a rule in 2013 that allows commanders to ask people if they own a weapon if the commander believes the person might be a threat. Before 2013 they were not authorized to do so.

Security experts reinforce that the key to increased security lies in early detection and assessment.

“I have to wonder what can reasonably be done going forward. It’s clear that the DOD has done everything that it can within reason — there are other things that can be explored like looking very proactively at people’s medical records and reexamining the limits of the privacy act,” said a security source within the Inspector General’s office who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the Fort Hood shooting. “I realize that there are millions of people in the DOD, but I’d like to think that a front line leader or a front line supervisor would be aware of what’s happening [with someone with mental issues] and would reach out and council the guy.”
 

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