Navy Yard Killer’s Case Highlights Flaws in U.S. Vetting

U.S. lawmakers this week demanded answers about Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis’s security clearance -- just as they did after Edward Snowden’s leaks of national surveillance programs were revealed in June.

After months of outrage over Snowden, little has been done to fix the vetting process. It’s not clear that even 13 dead at the Navy Yard will change that anytime soon. USIS, a federal contractor that’s a unit of Altegrity Inc., conducted both Snowden’s and Alexis’s background checks.

Some in Congress are calling for a go-slow approach after the Alexis case, saying Pentagon and White House reviews need time to play out.

Until Congress and President Barack Obama’s administration fix it, “the security clearance system is just going to go from one disaster to the next,” said Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore law professor and former member of the U.S. Commission on Wartime Contracting.

Both the Snowden and Alexis cases have called attention to an underfunded, flawed vetting process for obtaining clearances, where quality is forfeited in favor of speed and underpaid investigators rush to keep up with demand, according to security specialists.

Taxpayer Costs

Federal clearances and background investigations by the Office of Personnel Management cost taxpayers about $1 billion last year, with the expense expected to rise to $1.2 billion by 2014, according to Senator Claire McCaskill’s office. Additional costs would hit at a time when the Defense Department, which funds most of the military’s background checks, is already coping with across-the-board spending cuts under a process known as sequestration.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, wants to hold off on introducing legislation for now, said his spokeswoman, Tara Andringa.

“We expect that the investigations already under way will determine how the Navy Yard shooter was able to get and retain his security clearance and facility clearance,” Andringa said in an e-mail. “Until we have that information, it would be premature to speculate on the need for legislation, the impact of sequestration on this case, or the role played by contractors in this case.”

A spokesman for Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, also thinks the Pentagon should first review its policies before lawmakers enter the fray.

Pentagon Review

Both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the president “have initiated reviews of the clearance process,” said Michael Amato, a Smith spokesman. “From our perspective, while there may be room for legislative initiatives, we want to wait and see what the reviews turn up.”

“I think the Pentagon has both the funding and the authority and certainly the motivation to do the right thing,” said Representative Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican who serves on the Armed Services panel. “I wouldn’t presume at this point to give them guidance on what the right thing is.”

Hagel has ordered reviews of the security procedures that govern access to U.S. defense facilities around the world. Obama has ordered another review of employee and contractor protections.

The Pentagon is studying ways to automatically access arrest and conviction records of individuals who hold security clearances, a senior defense official told reporters yesterday.

Overcome Discrepancies

An automated system that pushes out arrest and conviction details of cleared persons to the Defense Department would help the Pentagon overcome discrepancies in data collection, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the process, which is under review following the Sept. 16 shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard.

Alexis, 34, was one of about 5 million federal contractors and employees who held security clearances last year. He had a secret-level clearance obtained from the Navy in March 2008.

After leaving the Navy in January 2011, Alexis retained the clearance even with three arrests, a history of mental illness and a record of military misconduct. His clearance 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 Office of Personnel Management, which conducts most federal background investigations, performed a background investigation for Alexis in 2007 before his clearance was approved.

Background Investigation

Four lawmakers including McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, yesterday asked the personnel office’s inspector general to scrutinize Alexis’s background investigation.

The background check for Snowden, a former Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. contractor working for the National Security Agency, was done by the USIS unit of Falls Church, Virginia-based Altegrity in 2011. USIS, a contractor, has been under investigation by the personnel office’s inspector general, who has said there may have been shortcomings in the company’s vetting of Snowden.

USIS also conducted the 2007 background investigation of Alexis, Ray Howell, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail today. He said yesterday that the company hadn’t done the check.

After Snowden’s leaks, five lawmakers including Senators Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, introduced legislation that would increase oversight of the government’s background investigations and security clearances.

Watchdog Office

In July, the Senate Homeland Security Committee approved a portion of the legislation that would allow the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general to tap some of the potentially $2 billion in resources from an agency revolving fund to investigate the security clearance process. The watchdog office now has limited access to funding to investigate the investigators.

Tester and Portman are pushing for a Senate vote next week on the legislation, Andrea Helling, a Tester spokeswoman, said in a phone interview.

Congress’s fixes don’t always turn out so well, said Tiefer, the law professor. After demand for clearances rose after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lawmakers stepped in with “painful oversight and strong legislation” to address delays in federal hiring, he said.

The unintended consequence was the sacrifice of quality “in the quest for quicker background checks,” Tiefer said. Additional funds for vetting wouldn’t necessarily have helped unless there were specific metrics for quality, he said.

Overworked Investigators

Federal background investigators are now overworked and underpaid, said Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners, a consulting firm in McLean, Virginia.

“Government customers expect Mercedes service for the price of a Cadillac,” Allen said. “When problems develop they are shocked, shocked!”

The U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2009 reported that about 87 percent of the 3,500 investigative reports that the Pentagon used to make top-secret clearance decisions were missing required documentation.

At least 18 investigators, including seven contractors, have been convicted of falsifying records as part of investigations since 2006, Patrick McFarland, inspector general for the personnel office, testified during a June congressional hearing.

McFarland called attention to a case in which a records worker fabricated 1,600 credit checks.

“Ironically, her own background investigation had been falsified by a background investigator convicted in a different fabrication case,” he said.

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