It’s the question that’s vexed Washington for two days: How could a man with three arrests, a military discharge for misconduct and a history of mental illness get into the Washington Navy Yard and kill 12 people?
The answer: Aaron Alexis had a security clearance, at a level known as “secret,” that made it easy for him to get the common access card that allowed him on the Navy base.
How he got the security clearance from the U.S. Navy in March 2008 -- and kept it until the day he was shot dead by police -- is harder to answer.
The vetting doesn’t provide the same scrutiny that the public might expect, security specialists familiar with the U.S. clearance process said. Nor does the system have the ability to regularly check on people with existing clearances to see if they still are living up to the standards that got them the clearance in the first place.
“There are certain things about these investigations that are lacking in some regards,” said William Henderson, who worked for the Defense Department and the Office of Personnel Management for more than 20 years. “The government is only willing to spend so much money to do these investigations and process the clearances, and they’re always looking for cheaper ways to do it. It’s a trade-off.”
In other words, someone like the 34-year-old Alexis can slip through, his problems long undetected.
The vetting process has been under scrutiny since Edward Snowden, a former contractor who worked for McLean, Virginia-based Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., leaked information on U.S. electronic surveillance programs. He had held a top-secret clearance.
President Barack Obama was briefed yesterday on the Navy Yard attack in a meeting with U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director James Comey.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has been reviewing security clearance policies for government contractors since the exposure of the classified surveillance programs by Snowden, who worked under contract for the National Security Agency.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters yesterday that the Office of Management and Budget, at Obama’s direction, is scrutinizing the standards for contractors and federal agency employees.
The Office of Personnel Management performed the background investigation for Alexis in 2007, and the Defense Department granted his clearance in 2008, Merton Miller, associate director of the office’s Federal Investigative Services, said in a statement.
“In general, background security clearance investigations include information about an individual’s criminal history, including criminal records, and that information would be passed on to the adjudicating agency,” Miller said.
Senator Claire McCaskill today asked the personnel office’s inspector general to determine who performed Alexis’s background investigation and whether his arrest record was given proper scrutiny. She also asked if the office used a contractor for the vetting.
“While guilt ultimately lies with the perpetrator of this terrible crime, those who lost loved ones and were injured in this shooting deserve to know the answers to these questions,” McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said in an e-mailed statement today.
After leaving the Navy in January 2011, Alexis retained the clearance, which was good for 10 years and wasn’t subject to a reinvestigation, according to a defense official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified.
The personnel office is working with other U.S. officials to “review the oversight, nature and implementation of security and suitability standards for federal employees and contractors,” Miller said.
Alexis’s 2004 arrest in Seattle for shooting tires on a vehicle wouldn’t have automatically resulted in a clearance denial, said Henderson, now president of Wilmington, North Carolina-based Federal Clearance Assistance Service LLC, which helps people with eligibility problems apply for clearances.
“There are very few automatic disqualifiers,” Henderson said. “It would typically have to be a serious offense or multiple lesser offenses.”
A security clearance can be revoked for a range of reasons including alcohol or drug problems, misuse of technology, or even a personal financial issue that could put a holder at risk of bribery or coercion, said Brian Kaveney, a partner with Armstrong Teasdale LLP in St. Louis who heads the firm’s security and facility clearance team.
There’s little chance that negative information would surface after a clearance has been granted, Kaveney said.
“The only way they’ll ever know most adverse information that occurs after the clearance is if the person with a clearance comes in and self-reports or someone else reports something about them,” he said. “Cleared employees have a responsibility to be vigilant about providing adverse information about other cleared employees.”
The litany of Alexis’s problems has raised questions about how he was able to enter the base, located about a mile from the U.S. Capitol.
In addition to his Seattle arrest in 2004, he was arrested in August 2008, and again in September 2010. Charges in the Seattle incident were never pursued for reasons that aren’t clear to law enforcement authorities there.
Kimberly Mills, a spokeswoman for the Seattle city attorney, said the police report -- which contained allegations of property destruction and discharge of a firearm -- “did not get to our office -- unknown why -- and thus it was not considered for charges.”
Authorities dropped the charges in the 2010 case.
In January 2011, Alexis was discharged from the Navy after a pattern of misconduct. Later, he was being treated for a history of mental illness.
In the last episode on Aug. 7, Alexis called police to his Newport, Rhode Island, hotel room and told them that people were “sending vibrations into his body.” Police contacted the Newport Naval Station to warn them about Alexis’s behavior.
Through it all, he kept his security clearance.
Navy officials yesterday defended their handling of the Alexis case, indicating that none of the disciplinary problems they encountered during his almost four years of service would have been enough to strip his security clearance.
“He wasn’t a stellar sailor,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Navy spokesman, said on CNN. Disciplinary problems “were by and large relatively minor,” such as dereliction of duty or failing to show up for work on time.
None of his offenses “give you any indication that he was capable of” the sort of “brutal” violence seen at the Navy Yard, Kirby said.
About 4.9 million federal contractors and employees held security clearances as of October 2012, according to data from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Most of them are at the secret or confidential level.
Alexis entered the Navy Yard with a valid identification card because of his work for a contractor. He worked for The Experts, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based subcontractor to Hewlett-Packard Co., on a contract to upgrade equipment on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet network, according to a statement by Michael Thacker, a spokesman for Palo Alto, California-based HP.
He had been employed with The Experts for about six months, and the company confirmed in a statement that Alexis held a secret clearance with the Defense Department. Two background checks paid for by the company revealed no issues except a minor traffic violation.
Alexis held a valid military ID card, called a common-access card, permitting entry into most facilities, the Washington Post reported, citing Experts Chief Executive Officer Thomas Hoshko.
“If I can find this out just by doing a Google search, that is sad,” Hoshko told the Post. “Anything that suggest criminal problems or mental health issues, that would be a flag. We would not have hired him.”