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Clearance process under scrutiny after Navy Yard killings

Sep. 29, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

The Navy is moving to tighten employee screening procedures as a host of inquiries get underway in hopes of preventing a repeat of the Washington Navy Yard massacre that left 13 people dead, including the shooter, former Navy reservist turned contract employee Aaron Alexis.

“The bottom line is, we need to know how an employee was able to bring a weapon and ammunition onto a [Defense Department] installation and how warning flags were missed, ignored or not addressed in a timely manner,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters last week. “Where there are inadequacies, we will address them. And where there are failures, we will correct them.”

One question policymakers are examining: Whether background investigations for security clearances should continue being done by contractors.

“That’s something we need to look at,” Carter said, referring to a White House review team.

Given that millions of federal employees and contractors throughout the government have clearances, another question is how investigators can do the “thorough and careful job” needed to have a reasonable chance of uncovering an applicant’s violent tendencies, Carter said.

Alexis, who was killed by police, believed he was under the sway of low-frequency radio waves and began the Sept. 16 rampage ready to die, the FBI said last week.

The background check that helped him get a secret clearance in 2008 was performed by USIS of Falls Church, Va., the largest federal contractor in that field. The Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the background investigation process, has said that the background investigation on Alexis was handled properly.

Three other reviews by the Defense Department and the Navy are also underway, Carter said. The first, commissioned by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, will assess security and access procedures at DoD installations. Probing the same questions will be an independent panel led by Paul Stockton, a former assistant defense secretary for homeland security, and retired Adm. Eric Olson, who headed Special Operations Command from 2007 to 2011. Lastly, the Navy is looking specifically at the security of Navy and Marine Corps facilities worldwide to decide whether existing procedures are appropriate in light of the shooting, Carter said. All are to be completed later this fall.

After examining Alexis’ four-year career as a full-time reservist from 2007 to 2011, Navy officials said last week they already are moving to close some gaps in the performance-review process — changes that might have allowed supervisors to better flag the sailor’s behavior. One recommendation by a Navy task force calls for more senior officers to sign off on performance reviews for departing service members.

Alexis’ record did not mention his arrest for firing a gun in anger or any behavior issues. As a result, the former sailor was able to land a job with a subcontractor called The Experts and get into the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters building at the Navy Yard.

Alexis’ final Navy evaluation said the departing aviation electrician’s mate third class “will be a valuable asset to any civilian organization.” It was signed by his department head.

In addition, the task force has recommended that OPM include all available police reports to determine a candidate’s eligibility. The recommendation stems from concerns that the Navy didn’t get the full story on a 2004 episode in which Alexis shot out the tires of another man’s car.

Although arrested for malicious mischief, Alexis was never prosecuted and the charge was dropped. But a Navy official, who spoke to reporters on condition that he not be identified, said the Navy knew only that Alexis had “deflated” a car’s tires.

In 2011, OPM was responsible for overseeing some 800,000 stand-alone background checks for applicants seeking secret or top-secret clearances, with much of the legwork conducted by contractors, according to a Government Accountability Office report released last year.

Over the years, the GAO has repeatedly found that the agency’s investigative reports lack required documentation. One 2009 review concluded that 87 percent of some 3,500 investigative reports used by Defense Department officials to make top secret clearance decisions were incomplete.

A hearing on the clearance and background check process is scheduled for Oct. 1 before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The entire clearance system needs an overhaul, said Chris Graham, a former administrative judge at the Defense Office of Hearing and Appeals, a DoD agency that handles appeals from clearance applicants who are turned down. To provide governmentwide consistency, the Defense Department should be charged with issuing all clearances, with background checks done in-house by government employees, not contractors, said Graham, now a lawyer in private practice.

In addition, he said, officials should review all jobs that have access to classified information “with the idea that there are far too many people required to have a security clearance who really don’t need one.”

As of last October, more than 4.9 million federal employees and contractors had clearances, according to the most recent compilation by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Staff writer Sam Fellman contributed to this report.

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