Report says uncooperative local police stymie federal background security checks

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Aaron Alexis, who carried out the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard last year, had been arrested in 2007 in Seattle for malicious mischief. He was arrested in 2004.

Law enforcement agencies in more than 450 jurisdictions, including D.C. police, do not cooperate with investigators conducting security-clearance probes for federal ­employees, according to a congressional report to be released Tuesday.

The report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said the millions of records kept by ­non-cooperative law enforcement agencies could provide vital clues to investigators on the front lines of a system that is facing unpre­cedented scrutiny. It proposes legislative changes to address lapses identified in the wake of last year’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard by a Defense Department contract worker.

“Unfortunately, many local law enforcement agencies frequently shun federal security clearance investigators, either refusing to provide criminal history information or providing only limited information,” the committee concluded, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Washington Post. “Without any enforcement mechanism against local law enforcement agencies that refuse to comply, federal security clearance investigators are unable to obtain pivotal information pertaining to their cases.”

Laws and policies regarding what type of information gathered by law enforcement personnel can be shared with the public and with other government agencies vary widely across the country. Some agencies share internal police information, such as arrest records, with security-clearance investigators, while others provide none.

The list of agencies that are deemed noncooperative is kept by the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees security clearances. The D.C. ­police department “does not cooperate” with investigators and tells them to “go to the courthouse,” the report said, quoting the OPM. Police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said the department is committed to helping with federal security-clearance investigations. But she noted that D.C. law bars police officials from sharing law enforcement information with civilians.

The FBI released video of shooter Aaron Alexis walking inside Navy Yard with a gun on the day of the shooting. (Thomas LeGro/The Washington Post)

Other major agencies that do not cooperate in security-clearance probes include the police departments in New York, Los Angeles and Baltimore, according to the report.

Access to raw police data could have made a difference in the security-clearance review of Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis, the report said. Investigators realized that Alexis had failed to disclose a 2004 arrest in Seattle for malicious mischief, but they did not obtain a copy of a police charging document alleging that the former sailor had used a gun to shoot out the tires of a car, because authorities in Seattle generally tell investigators to search the public court records, the report said.

Those records often include far less-detailed information than internal police databases and can be expunged if an arrest doesn’t lead to a conviction.

The lack of cooperation from local law enforcement agencies has stymied the federal security-clearance process for years. In 2009, the Justice Department successfully sued California for failing to disclose full criminal histories to security-clearance investigators.

The report, which was completed by the committee’s Republican majority, notes that agencies may be reluctant to comply because they don’t have the resources to gather the requested information.

Federal agencies and lawmakers have been exploring ways to address shortcomings in the security clearance system in recent months, stung by the Alexis case and the revelations about surveillance by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Addressing information-sharing gaps will be a complex undertaking. Other changes could be done overnight, the committee found, noting that investigators are currently barred from using social media sites to search for derogatory information.

The House panel, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), scheduled a hearing on the issue for Tuesday morning.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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