For years, hundreds of thousands of contractors seeking regular access to key Navy installations have merely paid a fee and typed identifying information into ATM-like machines installed on those bases. They were then able to gain temporary access without first going through a background check, even though Navy and White House regulations require such checks be completed beforehand.
Known as Rapidgate, the access control system is now in operation for contractors, vendors, service workers, and suppliers who regularly pass through not just Navy checkpoints – but also those at more than 150 military and government installations around the country, including the Washington Navy Yard, the site of the Sept. 16 shooting rampage.
Last week, an internal Pentagon report called into question how the Rapidgate system became so widely used by the Navy and urged its immediate cancellation at those sites, saying it provides a false sense of security that puts government personnel at risk. The Navy, it said, had contracted for the system through irregular acquisition practices.
Included among its current users are the Virginia Beach base where Navy Seal forces train, the Naval Observatory in Washington that includes the residence of the Vice President, the Maryland site of the Army’s top security chemical and biological laboratories, 15 major U.S. Army bases, the Coast Guard’s academy in Connecticut and its headquarters in Washington, and the Navy’s Trident ballistic missile submarine bases in Connecticut and Georgia, according to the website of Rapidgate’s operator, Eid Passport, Inc., based in Oregon.
At Navy bases alone, more than 290,000 contract employees have obtained passes through the system that has Rapidgate at its heart. Most of its expenses are directly paid by applicants for the passes, not from the military services and other government agencies responsible for enforcing post-9/11 security rules meant to protect personnel and families at government facilities from terrorism and other threats.
Some of the results, according to a new audit by the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General, have not been pretty. At the ten Navy installations where investigators probed the Rapidgate system’s operation, at least 52 felons, some convicted of serious drug or sexual offenses, were given unsupervised access for periods ranging from two months to three years, the inspector general’s office said in a report dated Sept. 16 that was initially labeled “For Official Use Only,” blocking its public release.
“This placed military personnel, dependents, civilians, and installations at an increased security risk,” the report said.
But the shooting – and the Inspector General’s report – have nonetheless brought sudden attention to Rapidgate, a system that has quietly helped its owner Eid Passport’s revenues increase six-fold from 2008 to 2011. The firm, whose board of directors is packed with former senior military and civilian officials including ex-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, was the 15th fastest growing security company in 2013, according to the Inc. 5000.
The Navy work alone is pulling in annual revenue of $53 million, according to a Navy estimate cited in the inspector general report, which faulted the Navy for circumventing normal competition requirements in striking the deal.
The Oregonian newspaper quoted Eid Passport’s chief executive officer, Steve Larson, as saying last August that board members such as Ridge, the retired combatant commander of the U.S. Northern Command and the former commandant of the Coast Guard "have been just overwhelmingly phenomenal at getting us in, opening doors and that sort of thing."
The company will need those contacts more than ever in the weeks ahead. The Inspector General’s report recommended that the Navy scrap Rapidgate immediately, noting that at nine of the 10 naval installations where investigators examined its use, the company gave out temporary passes before completing background checks.
When they occurred, it said, the checks mostly involved databases drawn from public records where the applicant reported residing, which were often outdated and incomplete. Derogatory information was missed, the report said. These records, according to Eid Passport, typically were those from court systems, corrections departments, law enforcement, sex offender registries and other related state, county and municipal sources
The inspector general’s office faulted the company – and the Navy – for not routinely checking the applicants against more accurate government criminal and terrorist databases. It also faulted Navy officers for knowingly accepting the associated security risks, which it said had given the commanders of those bases “a false sense of security” that their personnel were protected from hostile actions.
“We recommend [that the Navy]…immediately discontinue use of Rapidgate and any other system that exclusively uses publicly available databases to vet and adjudicate contractor employees accessing Navy installations, and replace it with a system or process that meets Federal and DOD requirements for background vetting,” said the report, signed by Alice F. Carey, an assistant inspector general for readiness, operations and support.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, who chairs the Homeland Security’s financial and contracting oversight subcommittee and who requested the report in response to the complaint of a whistleblower about Eid Passport’s contract with the Navy in June 2012, said in a statement that the report’s findings were “deeply concerning,” and endorsed the program’s immediate cancellation.
“This program wasted money, allowed dozens of felons access to installations they should never have had, and utterly lacked competent oversight,” McCaskill said in a written statement. “It’s clear that its existence constitutes an unnecessary danger to the Navy and its personnel.”
Navy spokeswoman Courtney Hillson said that vetting through the access control system had barred access to 27,261 vendors and suppliers. Other Navy officials added that in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting, the Defense Department was reviewing physical security and access controls at all of its installations, worldwide. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also planned to have the issue reviewed by an independent panel, they said.