Rich Galen

We have spoken of this before: The veneer of civilization is very, very thin.

Anyone. Anyone can cause unimaginable horror to happen by virtue of doing something that you or I would never think of.

Such an event happened earlier this week at the Washington Navy Yard when a mentally disturbed contractor shot and killed 12 civilians who had gone to work that morning expecting that it would be just another day at the office.

Aaron Alexis, the shooter, had a significant number of dings on his record. A general (as opposed to an honorable) discharge from the military; at least two issues regarding firearms; and a deteriorating mental state that, near the end, included hearing voices.

Now that all of these events are strung together it is easy to say: How the hell could this guy have had a Secret security clearance?

The three main levels of security clearances are:

Top Secret

There is also a level known as Top Secret - SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information). People who hold this level (known as TS/SCI) have access to some of America's most sensitive secrets.

There are levels above TS/SCI known as code word clearances, but I'm not allowed to know what they are and neither are you. Seriously. Code word level clearances are secret unto themselves. I have never held one. And I don't know anyone who has.

So, a Secret clearance is not particularly unique or special. That Alexis held that clearance is also not particularly unique or special.

Investigators can only go with what is (a) on the public record, (b) what the candidate tells them, and (c) what associates of the candidate say about him or her.

If Alexis fired a weapon illegally but was not charged, then it would not necessarily come to the attention of investigators for someone being cleared for Secret. If he was having mental issues, but he already held his Secret clearance, there would be no way for the system to track that.

That is little solace to the families, friends, and colleagues of the 12 people who were killed by Alexis. All they know is someone they loved, liked, and/or worked with is now dead at the hands of a man who was permitted to be among them, but shouldn't have been.

But, the veneer of civilization is very thin, and every time it is pierced it is horrifying.

Which leads us from the worst of what humans can do, to the best.

On September 5, 1977 the spacecraft known as Voyager 1 was launched, a month after its twin, Voyager 2, to explore, via fly-bys, of Jupiter and Saturn.

That was 36 years ago.

Rich Galen

Rich Galen has been a press secretary to Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. Rich Galen currently works as a journalist and writes at