The U.S. government is studying whether it can scour social-media websites for clues about potential risks from workers such as Edward Snowden and the Washington Navy Yard shooter.
Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked government secrets, and Aaron Alexis, who shot and killed 12 people, had security clearances. The cases have exposed a flawed system of vetting such employees, some of whom are slipping through the cracks.
The pilot studies, which looked at the feasibility of using automated records checks as well as social-media websites, turned up “actionable information,” Brian Prioletti, an assistant director in the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, said in testimony prepared for a Senate hearing today.
The tests also “indicate that retrieving, analyzing and processing the data is likely to be resource intensive,” he said.
Prioletti was among five government officials who appeared before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee more than a month after the Navy Yard shootings.
Lawmakers want to know how “a troubled, unstable individual possessed a security clearance from the U.S. government,” Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who heads the committee, said as he opened the hearing.
The Snowden case as well as documents released by U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning also have led members of Congress to question “the quality of background checks,” he said.
“Many national security experts have long argued that the security clearance process is antiquated and in need of modernization,” Carper said. “Given recent events, I think we have to ask whether the system is fundamentally flawed.”
Alexis, a 34-year-old subcontractor employee who was shot dead by police on Sept. 16, obtained a secret-level clearance from the U.S. Navy in March 2008 and kept it even with three arrests and a history of mental illness.
An initial Navy review released Sept. 23 found the service didn’t know about a 2004 incident in which Alexis shot out the tires of a car in Seattle because a 2007 background report said he was arrested for “deflating the tires.”
A report on his 2004 arrest wasn’t sought from the Seattle police because that city’s authorities routinely refer investigators to a state database of court records, Elaine Kaplan, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, said at the hearing. The state database lacked specific information about the arrest, she said.
If investigators aren’t required to get police reports of people seeking security clearances, the government risks missing signs of mental illness, said Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.
“I think there’s just a lot of checking boxes going on,” McCaskill said.
The Navy Yard massacre should prompt a review of the security-clearance process, including whether it approves too many and classifies too much information, said Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee.
Even with the review, “it’s unlikely that a stricter clearance process would have prevented a deranged individual from committing murder,” Coburn said.
Snowden, a former Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. employee who leaked information on U.S. surveillance programs, had a top-secret clearance.
Almost 5 million federal and contract workers have clearances. Those with top-secret clearances get reinvestigated once every five years, with less frequent reviews at lower clearance levels.
“The time interval between periodic reinvestigations leaves the U.S. government uninformed as to behavior that potentially poses a security or a counterintelligence risk,” Prioletti told the panel.
Both Snowden and Alexis were vetted by USIS, a unit of Falls Church, Virginia-based Altegrity Inc.that is under contract to handle many of the government’s background checks. Such reviews are required for clearances.
The Justice Department yesterday joined a whistle-blower lawsuit against the company. USIS is accused in the complaint in federal court in Montgomery, Alabama, of failing to perform quality control reviews in connection with its background investigations for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is working on a “continuous evaluation” tool that would ensure timely sharing of information across agencies, Prioletti said.
“Timely knowledge of such information might have prompted a security review or increased monitoring of the individual,” Prioletti said in his prepared testimony.
Government employees and contractors holding security clearances would be subject to random background checks under a proposal from two Democratic and two Republican senators.
The draft measure would initiate a review of public records and other databases to identify any information that might affect individuals currently holding a security clearance, according to McCaskill’s office.