Lawmakers to seek answers on security screening in wake of Navy Yard shooting

September 23, 2013
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The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee plans to hold a hearing to examine security clearances and other issues relating to last week’s Navy Yard shooting rampage.

The panel last week announced its intention to hold a hearing on security clearances but has not yet set a date. “We need to take a very hard look at the security clearance process, in particular, and explore other questions as we work to prevent another tragedy like this from ever occurring again,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member.

The same firm that screened suspected Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis also conducted a background check on National Security Administration leaker Edward Snowden. Those individuals ultimately gained access to secure facilities and sensitive information, respectively.

Sen. Claire McCaskill. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Sen. Claire McCaskill. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Sen. Clair McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Senate panel, said in a statement last week that the clearances show “a pattern of failure on the part of this company, and a failure of this entire system, that risks nothing less than our national security and the lives of Americans.”

The Office of Personnel Management, which handles background checks for federal employees and contractors, defended the Alexis screening last week. Mert Miller, associate director of the federal investigative services for OPM, said in a statement that the check, which was performed by government contractor USIS, was “complete and in compliance with all investigative standards.”

Mert also noted the Pentagon could have requested more information on the former Navy reservist if his profile had raised concerns. “OPM’s involvement with matters related to Aaron Alexis’ security clearance ended when we submitted the case to the Department of Defense for adjudication in December 2007,” he said. “DoD did not ask OPM for any additional investigative actions after it received the completed background investigation.”

Police records show that Alexis was involved in shooting incidents in 2004 and 2010, and authorities arrested him for disorderly conduct in 2008. The Post reported that the Navy also discharged him in early 2011 for a “pattern of misconduct.”

“We clearly need a top-to-bottom overhaul of how we vet those who have access to our country’s secrets and to our secure facilities,” McCaskill said, noting that USIS performs the majority of background checks for the federal government.

Federal officials acknowledged during a congressional hearing in June that the OPM inspector general’s office is investigating USIS for possible criminal violations.

Below is Miller’s complete statement about the screening of Alexis:

“The security clearance process begins when an agency identifies a person who will require eligibility for access to classified information. The scope of the investigation will vary, depending on the level of access required. As the risk to national security increases, so does the level of investigation. The existing investigative standard for a Secret clearance is a National Agency Check with Law and Credit (NACLC). The NACLC consists of a questionnaire completed by the person being investigated and checks of federal records, credit history records, and criminal history records. When OPM undertook the background investigation for Aaron Alexis in 2007, with support from a Government contractor, USIS, the appropriate federal records were obtained, and the required fieldwork was performed. OPM has reviewed the 2007 background investigation file for Aaron Alexis, and the agency believes that the file was complete and in compliance with all investigative standards.

“Background investigations are conducted by OPM at the request of an agency and done in accordance with Executive Order 12968 and applicable investigative standards as a part of the overall security clearance process. Once the investigation is complete, it is submitted to the adjudicating agency for review. Adjudication officials at the relevant agency evaluate the investigation and make the decision to grant or deny the security clearance. If the officials have any concerns with the investigation once it is received, or would like additional information beyond that required by the standards, they have the opportunity to request that OPM perform further work before the agency makes its final decision.

 “OPM’s involvement with matters related to Aaron Alexis’ security clearance ended when we submitted the case to the Department of Defense (DoD) for adjudication in December 2007. DoD did not ask OPM for any additional investigative actions after it received the completed background investigation.”

To connect with Josh Hicks, follow his Twitter feed or e-mail  josh.hicks@washpost.comFor more federal news, visit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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