WASHINGTON — A national story spotlighting alleged serious gaps in security systems at The Washington Navy Yard, scene of Monday’s deadly D.C. shootings, is anchored in comments by a reported security expert and former military intelligence officer.
But the expert cited is a Rockport man whose locally-based security intelligence and security business have been the target of investigations and credibility questions over the last four years.
James Atkinson, who heads a business called Granite Island Group based at 127 Eastern Ave., Gloucester, told the McClatchy News Service that the Navy hired his surveillance security firm in 2009 to test newly installed electronic security gates and other access controls inside the Navy Yard’s Building 197. That was the scene of Monday’s shootings that have left 13 people dead, including apparent shooter Aaron Alexis, a troubled former Navy reservist from Texas.
According to Atkinson, the Navy Yard has a history of weak security, with past reports citing poor entrance controls, video dead spots, inadequate lighting, malfunctioning alarms and other problems.
The “controlled penetration” test Atkinson says his firm carried out revealed that a tamper sensor wasn’t working because of a design defect and that hardware-store-variety screws had been used to secure the main access-control panel instead of more expensive screws that could be loosened only with a specific screwdriver.
“We found not only had people opened it up, but there were traces that somebody had placed a device inside that was recording data, so somebody could hoax the unit and claim to be a person they were not,” Atkinson told the news service.
More broadly, in two dozen investigations over previous years, Atkinson’s firm found major security lapses throughout the facility, such as doors jammed open with pieces of cardboard, “crisscrossed” video cameras pointed at one another, too few cameras and bad lighting at night.
“The security there is extraordinarily poor,” Atkinson said. “They need more cameras, better door security, better lighting. The access controls were appalling. The Washington Navy Yard has security that is below the level of security you see at Harvard or MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) or Boston University or any other major campus.”
Mo Schumann, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to discuss security at the Washington Navy Yard, but he said there have been broader security upgrades at military facilities.
“Since the shootings at Fort Hood, the Department of Defense has taken a number of steps to harden our facilities and establish new systems to prevent and respond to active shooter threats,” Schumann said, referring to a 2009 shooting at an Army base in Texas in which 12 people were killed and 31 were wounded.
The Navy did not comment on nor confirm any work carried out by Atkinson or his Gloucester-based company.
But it was in December 2009 that Atkinson — then also serving as a part-time emergency medical technician with the town’s ambulance corps — was arrested by Rockport police on an array of charges, including for storing an anti-tank rocket launcher among a cache of other weapons at his Broadway apartment.
And the police investigation began with charges of larceny of more than $250 by a “single scheme” and obstruction of justice after he promised to deliver over $32,000 in surveillance equipment to a Switzerland-based gas turbine business, but never provided the goods even after the money was deposited into his account.
According to local police reports, Rockport officers who searched his apartment found a cache of weapons that included two .22-caliber pistols, a .357-caliber handgun, a rifle; hundreds of rounds of ammunition for a wide range of firearms, including a Glock handgun; Mace; military-grade smoke bombs; more than 1,000 pills without corresponding prescriptions; a tear gas launcher; a “U.S. Army” M190 rocket launcher; and what police estimated to be millions of dollars worth of surveillance equipment. The rocket launcher was described in a U.S. Army manual as a 35mm, light, anti-tank practice rocket launcher.
Atkinson was later indicted on the weapons charges, though some were later dropped. And Atkinson, in turn, filed a 600-plus-page lawsuit against the town and sought $175 million from Rockport, the state and other defendants or allegedly violating his cicil rights by entering his home and confiscating his firearms. A federal court dismissed his lawsuit in 2011, and the U.S Court of Appeals has stood behind that initial ruling, but Atkinson has continued to appeal.
Records also show, however, that, in April 2007, Atkinson provided written testimony for a U.S. House committee for an investigation into the U.S. Coast Guard’s Deepwater program to replace or upgrade virtually all of its ships, planes and helicopters. And he has testified and spoken elsewhere on a variety of security issues.
Even though the Navy Yard is a military facility, security is tighter at some nonmilitary campuses in the Washington region. At the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., for example, every visiting car is stopped, its underside is examined with mirrors, and guards sweep the trunk and cabin interior.
Under military base consolidations over the past decade, several intelligence agencies have leased offices there — among them the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, so some areas of the Navy Yard require higher security clearances to enter.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton — the District of Columbia’s representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, disagreed with the detractors.
“The facility is one of the most secure facilities in the District of Columbia,” she said.
Material from McClatchy News Service is used in this story.