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Navy Yard shootings expose a flawed security clearance system

Agency working on unified standards

The government system that provided Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis a "secret" security clearance has been beset by problems.

A "secret" clearance requires a far less intrusive investigation into a person's background than that for a "top secret" or higher security designation. The Government Accountability Office notes that it costs the government $4,000 to conduct a background check for a top-secret clearance, but only $260 for a secret clearance.

In 2012, the GAO reported that the Defense Department and other agencies "will continue to risk making security clearance determinations that are inconsistent or at improper levels" because of there is no single set of guidelines to determine who gets or doesn't get a clearance.

The office of the director of national intelligence (DNI) was supposed to set up unified standards, but had not when the GAO report was issued.

"The process has not been completed yet," DNI spokesman Gene Barlow said Tuesday, adding that the agency is working on one guideline.

Security at the Navy Yard and within the Defense Department emerged as key issues in the aftermath of Monday's shooting spree in which 12 civilian workers were slain at the naval facility in Southeast Washington.

Citing a Pentagon inspector general report, Rep. Michael R. Turner, Ohio Republican and a key member of the House Committee on Armed Services, said the Navy Yard's security system was installed to cut costs and may be flawed.

"I am highly concerned that the access control systems at our nation's military installations have serious security flaws," Mr. Turner, chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces, said in a letter Monday to acting Pentagon Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks.

In addition, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said he wondered whether budget cuts had something to do with a gunman getting onto the base.

"As I look at, for example, sequestration, which is about saving money in the federal government being spent, have we somehow skimped on what would be available for projects like this and then we put people at risk?" Mr. Gray said Tuesday on CNN's "New Day."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to order a review of physical security and access at all U.S. defense installations worldwide, a senior Pentagon official said on background.

Mr. Hagel was collecting input from senior leaders Tuesday to define the parameters of the review, which could be announced as early as Wednesday.

The move follows Navy Secretary Ray Mabus' decision to direct a "rapid review" of Navy and Marine Corps security procedures at military bases in the U.S. by Oct. 1.

Security check

Alexis was one of about 4.8 million government and contractor employees who hold some type of security clearance. The main designations are confidential, secret, top secret, and top secret, special compartmented information.

Alexis' secret clearance is more restrictive than a top-secret designation, which allows the holder wider access into the nation's classified world.

A secret clearance can be issued within a week or a few months.

In conducting a security clearance background check, the government requires an applicant's Social Security number and address, and examines the person's credit history and work experience going back 10 years. It also requires at least three character references and three work references from a manager and co-workers.

Investigators would have been required to check Alexis' military and criminal records, but his honorable discharge would have weighed heavily in his favor in obtaining a clearance. A less-than-honorable discharge, which the Navy initially sought, would have triggered a more thorough review of his personnel file.

In addition, although Alexis was arrested on a gun-related charge in Seattle in 2004, he was not convicted of a crime. He enlisted in the Navy Reserve in 2007.

The Pentagon relied on his secret clearance when he left the Navy in 2011 and began working as a contractor in the defense industry, a defense official said late Tuesday. There was no re-investigation, so he continued to hold the clearance as a computer technician based on background checks conducted in 2007.

"Mr. Alexis was initially granted eligibility as a Navy reservist," the official said on background. "In accordance with national reciprocity standards, his eligibility was reciprocally accepted when he moved to Industry. In the absence of unadjudicated derogatory information and/or a break in employment greater than 24 months, contractors may be reciprocally granted eligibility and access based on an existing eligibility."

The official said regulations required only that Mr. Alexis be reinvestigated every 10 years.

"The ultimate determination of whether the granting or continuing of national security eligibility is clearly consistent with the interests of national security is based on an overall common-sense judgment taking into account behaviors associated with the adjudicative guidelines and evaluated in the context of the whole person," the official said.

His clearance was issued by the Pentagon's Defense Security Service. A spokeswoman for the agency declined to comment Tuesday.

Alexis worked as a computer technician for the firm The Experts, on a subcontract from Hewlett-Packard.

FBI Assistant Director Valerie Parlave said Tuesday that Alexis gained access to the Navy Yard with a "valid pass."

Flawed system

In a report Tuesday, the Pentagon's acting inspector general said the security system for screening Navy contractors had issued credentials to 52 felons, placing "military personnel, dependents, civilians and installations at an increased security risk."

The Navy Commercial Access Control System (NCACS) allowed numerous contractors to access bases "without having their identities vetted through mandatory authoritative databases, such as the National Crime Information Center database and the Terrorist Screening Database," the report said.

Instead, contractors were vetted using only publicly available information and databases, investigators found.

However, a Navy official said on background that any flaws in the commercial access control system were unrelated to Alexis' ability to access the Navy Yard. Alexis had been issued with a common access card, which allows holders access to military facilities regardless of branch of service.

"The report looks at NCACS. This guy didn't have an NCACS card," the Navy official said.

The inspector general's report blames system's flaws on the Navy's desire to save money, saying it "minimized costs to perform contractor credentialing and vetting."

NCACS is a servicewide system designed to issue and check credentials for contractors and others who need regular access to naval facilities but who are not entitled to a common access card.

A spokesman for Mr. Turner of the House Committee on Armed Services said the congressman met with officials from the inspector general's office to discuss the report's findings, and is writing a letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus encouraging the service to implement all the report's suggestions.

Phillip Swarts and Kristina Wong contributed to this report.

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