SAN JOSE, Calif. — President Barack Obama on Tuesday ordered a sweeping federal review of security-clearance procedures following revelations that the man who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard had a secret clearance that gave him access to the base, despite at least three prior arrests and severe psychological problems that included hearing voices.
The gunman, 34-year-old Navy veteran Aaron Alexis, was working for The Experts, a Florida-based subcontractor for Hewlett-Packard, which was upgrading the Yard’s intranet. Officials with the subcontractor were quoted by news organizations as saying they’d been unaware of any problems with Alexis, whose security clearance reportedly was granted by the military in 2007 and reinstated in July.
Yet following the massacre, it was revealed that Alexis had been arrested in recent years for firing guns at a car, through a noisy neighbor’s floor and into a friend’s wall; drank heavily; heard voices in his head; and suffered from what acquaintances referred to as paranoia, post-traumatic stress disorder and anger-management issues.
A month before he went on the rampage, Alexis complained to police in Rhode Island that people were talking to him through the walls and ceilings of his hotel rooms and sending microwave vibrations into his body to deprive him of sleep, according to The Associated Press. Police notified the Navy of the incident, but it’s unclear what was done with that report.
He was shot and killed by police responding to the attack Monday.
The focus on Alexis’ ability to access a highly secure military installation while carrying a gun comes amid growing national concerns — fueled partly by revelations about National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden — over the often slipshod manner in which security clearances are issued.
Typically, security clearances involve a review of credit reports, criminal records and other publicly available data. Applicants also fill out a questionnaire in which they are supposed to reveal any potentially incriminating information, as well as education and employment. But the extent and detail of this vetting varies, depending on the level of clearance sought and the agency that is handling the clearance. There are four levels of security clearances: confidential, secret, top secret and “sensitive compartmented information.”
At Obama’s direction, the federal Office of Management and Budget “is examining standards for contractors and employees across federal agencies,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
Several prominent members of Congress — including Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — also vowed to look into the matter.
Other experts say it’s about time.
“They need to do better background investigations” of people seeking security clearances, concluded Van Nuys, Calif., lawyer Joseph Testan, who consults with defense contract employees on clearance issues and who gained expertise in the subject as a former administrative judge with the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals.
Testan said he’s aware of instances where “background investigators would not get copies of court and police records because the particular court or police department charged for them,” and the agencies the investigators worked for “would not pay the fee.” He added that in the 1980s, “they did much more thorough investigations.”
Similar clearance concerns arose earlier this summer in the case of former NSA contractor Snowden, who worked for consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
After he leaked secret NSA documents about the agency’s Internet monitoring, it was disclosed that his background check had failed to verify his account of a previous security violation, didn’t adequately look into a trip to India that he’d apparently taken but not reported, and overly relied on information from his mother and a girlfriend.
Snowden’s background check reportedly had been done for the government by a private contractor, a common practice that’s become highly controversial. In 2010, the inspector general for the federal Office of Personnel Management, which often uses contractors for the checks, determined that many of the checkers weren’t adequately trained or supervised, and that their clearance reports often lacked crucial information.
Hewlett-Packard officials declined to discuss Alexis’ clearance, beyond issuing a statement that “we are deeply saddened by the tragic events at the Washington Navy Yard. Our thoughts and sympathies are with all those who have been affected.” The statement added that “HP is cooperating fully with law enforcement as requested.”
HP and other Bay Area tech companies with government contracts frequently rely on employees with security clearances, and often subcontract out part of the work. Thomas Hoshko, the CEO of HP’s subcontractor, expressed outrage in an interview with the Washington Post that his company hadn’t been told of Alexis’ troubled past and said he wouldn’t have hired him had he known. Those problems reportedly included an arrest in 2004 for shooting out a Seattle construction worker’s tire and another arrest in 2010 for firing his gun into the ceiling of his Fort Worth apartment, apparently because he considered the neighbor too loud. In addition, media outlets have reported that Alexis was arrested in 2008 for disorderly conduct in Georgia, fired a bullet through a friend’s wall in 2012 and had emotional problems.
It’s unclear if Alexis, who spent nearly four years in the Navy as a reservist from May 2007 until January 2011, was ever charged with a crime. However, the 2010 gun incident reportedly played a role in his honorable discharge, during which the military accused him of “a pattern of misconduct.”
His most recent security review in July, approved by the Defense Security Service of the Department of Defense, included hiring background screening firm First Advantage to run a background check through court records, the Washington Post reported, adding it’s unclear what time frame the review scrutinized and whether previous police reports were reviewed.
The Post also noted that more than 4.9 million federal government workers and contractors held a security clearance in 2012 — the vast majority of whom work for the Department of Defense.
Some critics contend security clearances have become less thorough because of federal budget cuts. The Post said the cost of each investigation varies widely, depending on how deep investigators dig into the background of an applicant. In 2012, it said, the base price of a secret clearance investigation was $260, while a top-secret clearance check can cost more than $4,000.
Distributed by MCT Information Services