WASHINGTON — We know the story: Nine years before Aaron Alexis went on a homicidal rage at the Washington Navy Yard last month, shooting dead a dozen people, he was on another rage.
With a Glock 30 .45-caliber pistol, he shot the tires of a car belonging to a construction worker employed next door to Alexis’ home in Seattle.
In 2007, three years after that, Alexis, a defense contractor, was granted a “secret” security clearance. Government officials didn’t even know details of his earlier wrath. It led to his arrest but not a conviction.
That level of ignorance left members of a Senate committee dismayed at a federal security-clearance process that does not always check an individual’s police record.
“This is a shocking revelation,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., echoing the views of colleagues at a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing Thursday.
“The notion that you’re calling what you’re doing ‘quality control’ is offensive,” she told Elaine Kaplan, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees background investigations.
“If we do a gut check on this issue, we’ll realize a lot of the work we’ve been doing on this has just been checking boxes,” she said.
There are efforts to ensure that background checks go beyond that.
McCaskill, along with Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., introduced legislation Wednesday that would require an automated search of public records for everyone with a security clearance.
The searches would come at random times but at least twice every five years.
Brian Prioletti, an assistant director in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told the committee about a similar “Continuous Evaluation” tool under development that “will enable us to more reliably determine an individual’s eligibility to hold a security clearance or sensitive position on an ongoing basis.”
President Barack Obama has ordered an administration review of the security clearance process.
“In particular, we recognize that evolution of the security clearance process must include the ability to obtain and easily share relevant information on a more frequent or real-time basis,” Kaplan said.
She also had to field complaints about USIS, the private contractor that did the background investigation of Alexis and Edward Snowden, who leaked National Security Agency documents.
The Justice Department has joined a lawsuit that accuses the firm of billing the government for incomplete investigations.
“Maybe it’s a cold comfort, but the cases that . . . were, to use the phrase ‘dumped,’ were cases that also were subject to OPM quality review,” Kaplan said. “So it is not that the cases were never reviewed before they were passed on to the agency” responsible for determining if someone will get a security clearance.
Kaplan must be pleased that she won’t have to suffer critical congressional questioning much longer: She’ll soon leave the OPM to serve as a judge with the United States Court of Federal Claims.
But for one last time as an OPM official, she had to answer to senators who found serious problems with the OPM’s supervision of background investigations.
“I think we have to ask whether the system is fundamentally flawed,” Chairman Thomas Carper, D-Del., said.
Kaplan didn’t defend the system, but she did try to explain it.
“It is important to understand the relatively limited nature of the investigation prescribed in the standards as they existed in 2007 for individuals like Mr. Alexis being considered for a Secret-level clearance in connection with their military service,” she said in testimony submitted to the committee. “Those standards were records based, unlike the investigations for higher levels of clearance, and did not require that the investigator interview references.”
She said that in the Alexis case, the investigation examined court records but not Seattle Police Department reports, because in the past, that department and others would not provide those reports.
“I don’t believe that is accurate,” said Mark Jamieson, a Seattle police detective in the department’s public affairs office. “Anyone who was doing a proper background investigation” could have seen the police report on Alexis because it is a public document.
Indeed, that document is now online. Though it might not have been online in 2007, Jamieson said that “if they had called and inquired, we would have provided that to them.”
Court records in Washington state were checked, Kaplan said, and indicated that a malicious-mischief allegation concerning Alexis had been dismissed.
But senators noted that court records do not always reveal the complete story. The disposition of a case “may tell us nothing,” said Ayotte, a former prosecutor.
Asked Carper: “Why did the investigator responsible for looking into that arrest write up that Alexis had ‘retaliated by deflating’ someone’s tires instead of disclosing that Alexis had shot the tires?”
An unhappy Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee, said that “this is an issue of us failing to do our job in a proper way when it comes to security clearances.”
But, he added, “it’s unlikely that a stricter clearance process would have prevented a deranged individual from committing murder.”