CNN Asks If Sequester 'Put Lives at Risk' at Navy Yard

[UPDATED BELOW] Three times on Tuesday morning, CNN mentioned sequester cuts as a possible culprit behind the security breach at the Navy Yard that led to Monday's shooting there. A CNN headline actually read "Did Government Cuts Put Lives at Risk?"

This came after a former Navy commander warned on CNN that blaming the sequester was "very premature." And just before noon, correspondent Dana Bash reported that "what I've been told is the answer is absolutely not" as to the sequester having a role in the security breach.

Anchor Carol Costello twice cited D.C.'s Democratic mayor who said the sequester could have led to decreased security at the Navy Yard. "I want to ask you about sequestration. Because D.C.'s Mayor came out and said sequestration is partly to blame for this. Do you agree?" she asked Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio).

"[Y]ou heard what the Mayor said. He said security might have been a little lax because of cost cuts due to sequestration. You represent all the people in this great city. Have you heard that from them?" Costello asked D.C. council member Vincent Orange. 

Earlier on CNN's New Day, former Navy Commander Kirk Lippold told co-host Chris Cuomo, "I think at this point to say the sequester may have had a role in this very premature. And I would advise people at this point, don't make that jump to conclusion."

Later during the 11 a.m. ET Legal View, correspondent Dana Bash upheld that reasoning:

 "[S]ome of the things that I've been hearing sort of chatter about, is whether or not the sequester, those forced spending cuts that start at the beginning of the year, if that contributed at all to this. And you know, what I've been told is the answer is absolutely not because contractors have been used for years and years, really since the end of the Clinton administration. That's when it started to expand. So it's a security system in particular, not necessarily who was getting through the system, meaning if it's a Pentagon employee or a contractor."

However, during the 9 a.m. ET hour, law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes said sequester blame was "possible" and launched into a lengthy discourse about agencies cutting funding at a bad time: "I think a lot of agencies are cutting costs right now with sequestration and just regular budget cuts, and nobody seems in a hurry to resolve any of these issues," he said.

"I think it ought to be ringing alarm bells that Congress needs to be looking at itself as well as anybody else," he added.

After CNN's Chris Cuomo interviewed D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray on New Day, CNN cut off Gray's words in a clip of him that played during the 9 a.m. ET hour, which made Gray sound even more like he blamed the sequester for the deaths at the Navy Yard.

Here are Gray's words on New Day first:

"But certainly, as I look at, for example, sequestration, which is about saving money in the federal government being spent, how we somehow skimp on what would be available for projects like this, and then we put people at risk? Obviously 12 people have paid the ultimate price for whatever was done to have this man on the base."

Note how Gray is still ambivalent as to the ultimate cause of the shooting, using "whatever" to describe the cause. But in the second clip, his "whatever" phrase is left out and it sounds like he definitively blames the sequester for which the victims "paid the ultimate price":

"But certainly as I look at, for example, sequestration, which is about saving money in the federal government being spent, how we somehow skimp on what would be available for projects like this, and then we put people at risk? Obviously 12 people have paid the ultimate price."

<<UPDATE: 9/17/13 3:51 p.m. EDT>> TIME magazine reporter Zeke Miller told CNN that cuts to security at Naval bases described in a Pentagon IG report actually took place before the sequester. "That's actually the big takeaway, that this is pre-existing to sequestration," Miller told CNN during the 1 p.m. ET hour of Newsroom.

"So it can't be blamed on the sequester?" asked CNN's Jake Tapper. Miller answered that "this isn't the sequester." (H/T Mediaite)

Below is a transcript of the segments, which aired on September 17:

NEW DAY
[6:48 a.m. EDT]

CHRIS CUOMO: And as you're saying, there are excellent investigators there. If they find out he didn't shoot his way in and that on top of what we know about him getting clearance, there will be some big questions about how money is spent and how policy is applied to keep these facilities safe.

Commander KIRK LIPPOLD, former Navy commander: Absolutely. I think at this point to say the sequester may have had a role in this very premature. And I would advise people at this point, don't make that jump to conclusion. Let these investigators, these true professionals at the FBI and local law enforcement, Navy Criminal Investigative Service, do a thorough investigation. Because then we're really going to understand how did it happen, why did it happen, and we need to do that first and foremost for the families that lost loved ones, that are going to want answers into how their loved ones came to die.

[7:15]

CUOMO: In one respect, there's more definable politics surrounding this clearance issue. The gun debate's going to go on. We know that. But we've had people say this is the sequester. This is trying to do things on the cheap that shouldn't be done on the cheap. This is private contractors vetting, not the government vetting. How real will this be going forward in terms of a political fix?

JOHN KING: Both on the vetting issue and on, because of spending priorities, have they reduced security levels at installations like this? We have a mix of military personnel and a mix of contractors. You're going to see a lot of congressional attention and other public attention on both of those questions. Number one, contractors vetting people who have access to sensitive information, Edward Snowden for example. Or access to sensitive installations like this. And then the bigger question of, access, can anybody now – post-9/11 as the years have passed, have we dropped the level of scrutiny when you walk in with a car or walk in with a bag?

[7:37]

CUOMO: What's your best explanation at this point? Is this about some private contractor not doing their job well? Is this about policy? Is this about money? What do you think? Because this is not one of these random events where, could his mental health have been better? Could we have kept him out of the general population? This is about a process where he got the access that he shouldn't have had. What's your best chance?

Mayor VINCENT GRAY (D), Washington, D.C.: It's hard to know. We'll continue with this investigation. But certainly, as I look at, for example, sequestration, which is about saving money in the federal government being spent, how we somehow skimp on what would be available for projects like this, and then we put people at risk? Obviously 12 people have paid the ultimate price for whatever was done to have this man on the base.

NEWSROOM
[9:07 a.m. EDT]

COSTELLO: So many questions surrounding what you just said. There's a huge spotlight into security inside the Navy Yard. And already some in Congress are demanding answers. Republican Congressman Michael Turner has actually sent a letter to the acting Inspector General of the Department of Defense demanding more information about the results of a Navy security audit. He writes – the Congressman writes, "It is my understanding that the IG report indicates the Navy may have implemented an unproven system in order to cut costs. I also learned that potentially numerous felons may have been able to gain restricted access to several military installations across the country due to insufficient background checks, increasing the risk to our military personnel and civilian employees."

CNN law enforcement analyst and former assistant director of the FBI, Tom Fuentes, is on the phone right now to talk more about this. Good morning, Tom.

TOM FUENTES, CNN law enforcement analyst: Good morning, Carol.

COSTELLO: Is it true, what the Congressman says? Has the Navy cut costs surrounding issues like background checks and security?

FUENTES: Well, it's possible. I think a lot of agencies are cutting costs right now with sequestration and just regular budget cuts, and nobody seems in a hurry to resolve any of these issues. From what I've heard, law enforcement agencies as well as the military are cutting costs and trying to get as much done as they can with a lesser amount. Nobody has talked about this in recent times. It doesn't appear that many people care about it. Even right now, the FBI has a hiring freeze. We're told they are going to be laying off 3,000 people next year and have extensive budget cuts. And this is in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, and constant array of attacks and people conducting violent acts such as this. So I think it ought to be ringing alarm bells that Congress needs to be looking at itself as well as anybody else.

[9:33]

COSTELLO: We're talking a lot about what happened here yesterday, the tragic events, and one of the questions being raised about yesterday's shooting rampage, did government cuts put security at risk? D.C.'s Mayor Vincent Gray addressed that issue head on in an interview with CNN's New Day anchor Chris Cuomo. Listen.

[HEADLINE: Did Government Cuts Put Lives at Risk?]

(Video Clip)

VINCENT GRAY, (D) Mayor, Washington D.C.: We'll continue with this investigation. But certainly as I look at, for example, sequestration, which is about saving money in the federal government being spent, how we somehow skimp on what would be available for projects like this, and then we put people at risk. Obviously 12 people have paid the ultimate price.

(End Video Clip)

COSTELLO: I'm joined now by D.C. councilman-at-large Vincent Orange. Thank you so much for being with me. I appreciate it. Okay, so you heard what the Mayor said. He said security might have been a little lax because of cost cuts due to sequestration. You represent all the people in this great city. Have you heard that from them?

VINCENT ORANGE (D), D.C. city council member: I have not heard that from them. That may have been a factor. But it appears as though Mr. Alexis had the proper identification to enter the Navy Yard. And I think we may have to at some point re-examine the protocol that was in place at the Navy Yard.

[10:13]

COSTELLO: And I want to ask you about sequestration. Because D.C.'s mayor came out and said sequestration is partly to blame for this. Do you agree?

Rep. MIKE TURNER (R-Ohio), Armed Forces Committee:  I think it's one of the issues we have to look at. I can tell you that the Inspector General report does cite cost pressures on the Navy for the decision making that put this system in place that may have caused the risk. But the report itself specifically says that people at these facilities remain at risk as long as this system is in place. That's certainly what Congress is going to have to check on when we get back.

LEGAL VIEW
[11:52 a.m. EDT]

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD: The rampage yesterday came just after the Pentagon's Inspector General was wrapping up what we've been talking about, this audit of Naval base security. Specifically costs and who gets in and who stays out. One lawmaker who's seen this audit says it's pretty disturbing.

(Video Clip)

Rep. MIKE TURNER, (R) Armed Services Committee: It said in the Inspector General report that the people who worked there were at risk and in fact cited 52 felons who had been able to get through the system inappropriately. It said that the system that was currently utilized by the Navy did not meet federal or DOD standards, and it actually made a recommendation that the system that the Navy was deploying immediately cease to be used.

(End Video Clip)

(...)

DANA BASH: You know, one of the questions that was asked of him in addition, and some of the things that I've been hearing sort of chatter about, is whether or not the sequester, those forced spending cuts that start at the beginning of the year, if that contributed at all to this. And you know, what I've been told is the answer is absolutely not because contractors have been used for years and years, really since the end of the Clinton administration. That's when it started to expand. So it's a security system in particular, not necessarily who was getting through the system, meaning if it's a Pentagon employee or a contractor.

Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro
Matt Hadro was a News Analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division from 2010 through early 2014