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Background checks under scrutiny after Navy Yard shooting

Sep. 22, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By JIM McELHATTON   |   Comments
Washington Navy Yard Area Recovers Day After 13 De
How Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis could get a secret government cleareance while a checkered background is raising broader concerns on Capitol Hill and in the White House about the security clearance process. Pictured: A police officer stands guard at the front gate of the Washington Naval Yard on Sept. 17. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

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A month before Aaron Alexis killed 12 people in the Navy Yard rampage, police in Rhode Island sent word to the Navy that the 34-year-old Texas man reported hearing voices and thought he was the target of a “microwave machine.”

The Navy contractor was arrested in 2010 after firing a gun through the ceiling of his apartment. Adding to the list of run-ins with the law was a disorderly conduct arrest in Georgia in 2008. In 2004, he admitted shooting out the tires of a man’s truck in Seattle in what he told police was an anger-fueled blackout.

How someone with such a checkered background could have received a secret government clearance is raising broader concerns on Capitol Hill and in the White House about the security clearance process. President Obama ordered a review of security standards across government.

“As we have seen in the case of Edward Snowden and now with the tragic events that transpired at the Navy Yard this week, there are real questions with regards to the effectiveness of our security process,” Ohio Sen. Rob Portman wrote in a letter to Office of Personnel Management Inspector General Patrick McFarland.

The shootings also prompted New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte to ask leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee for a hearing to “thoroughly review and fix deficiencies within existing federal contracting hiring practices that the alleged Washington Navy Yard gunman exposed and exploited.”

With lawmakers scrutinizing contractor clearances, a prominent trade group for services contractors wants lawmakers to include civilian workers and defense personnel in any security clearance reviews and reforms.

“Whatever gaps in the process may exist are equally applicable to all individuals seeking to obtain or retain a clearance,” Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Commission, wrote in a letter to congressional leaders. “To look at the issue only through the narrow lens some have suggested would be counter-productive and shortsighted.”

No derogatory information

Alexis received a secret government clearance in 2008 and never lost his access despite the paper trail of arrests. Still, no “derogatory information” turned up in the Defense Department’s background check system, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Services said in an email statement.

Security clearance applicants must fill out the 127-page Office of Personnel Management Standard Form 86, which delves deep into applicants’ past, tracing where they’ve lived, whom they’ve worked for and which countries they or family members have visited.

The form also includes questions about past arrests, including those, such as in Alexis’ case, that never led to convictions. OPM oversees background investigations and relies on contractors to carry them out.

Mert Miller, OPM’s associate director of Federal Investigative Services, said in a statement that OPM has reviewed its 2007 background investigation file for Alexis, “and the agency believes that the file was complete and in compliance with all investigative standards.”

USIS, the government’s largest federal background contractor, performed the check on Alexis, the company said. The same company has come under scrutiny for its background check of Snowden, but OPM said the “appropriate federal records were obtained, and the required fieldwork was performed” in the Alexis case.

Alexis, who was a Navy reservist from 2007 to 2011, received a secret clearance after being deemed eligible by the Navy’s Central Adjudication Facility in March 2008, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Service confirmed in a statement.

He also retained his access to secret information when he became a contractor under reciprocity rules, according to DSS.

But no derogatory information turned up in the Joint Personnel Adjudication System (JPAS), which is the Pentagon’s management system for security clearance actions.

In a statement, DSS said an individual with Mr. Alexis’ “non-critical level of eligibility” would only need to be reinvestigated once every 10 years.

The clearance system relies on individuals to self report, and report on others, to bring compromising information to the attention of the government in the first place, said security consultant Wynn Phillips.

“When you get your clearance, they brief you about your responsibilities and one of them is you’re supposed to report adverse information,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the Navy Yard shooting highlights an “individual issue” about Alexis’ clearance, but he doesn’t think the gunman’s story reflects systemic problems.

Still,Greg Rinckey, a former Judge Advocate General attorney who represents clients on security clearance issues, said in an interview that Alexis’ background should have been vetted more closely.

“It clearly should have come up,” Rinckey said. “An arrest doesn’t automatically disqualify you, but it’s clearly an issue that needs to be looked into.”

Arrests don't always disqualify

Nonetheless, records show that an arrest history or even convictions do not automatically disqualify someone from getting a national security clearance. The Defense Department makes no secret of that fact, regularly posting online hundreds of so-called industrial security decisions involving contractor personnel seeking clearances.

One man, for example, had a fairly extensive record of convictions, including public intoxication and drug conspiracy charges more than a decade ago that resulted in a prison sentence. After a hearing, an administrative judge at the Defense Department issued a ruling calling the applicant a hard-working man who didn’t deny his background and mistakes but who proved he was suitable for a security clearance.

In another case, a clearance applicant had a history of alcohol-fueled criminal behavior. He was convicted of assault on a police officer in 2001 and assault with a deadly weapon two years later. Over the next few years, he faced disorderly conduct, public intoxication, vandalism and drunk driving charges.

The government deemed him ineligible for a clearance. But the applicant said he quit drinking years ago and had gotten his life back together. A judge ruled against the government, ruling him eligible for a clearance.

There’s no indication that Alexis’ application faced the sort of scrutiny that warranted administrative proceedings.

The government contractor that hired Alexis told the Washington Post that officials never would have hired him if they’d known anything about reports of gun-related arrests involving their employee.

“If I can find this out just by doing a Google search, that is sad,” Thomas Hoshko, chief executive of The Experts, told The Post. “Anything that suggests criminal problems or mental health issues, that would be a flag. We would not have hired him.”

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