AT Security Clearance Attorney Explains Navy Yard Shooter's Access
DISCLAIMER: The below article originally appeared on Bloomberg's website titled "Shooter With Clearance Post-Arrest Exposes Vetting Gaps".
By: Kathleen Miller & Gopal Ratnam
(BLOOMBERG) -- 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. (BAH), 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.
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.”