Many of the country’s biggest cities — including Washington, New York and Los Angeles — refuse to cooperate with federal security clearance investigators, often leaving them in the dark about potential red flags, according to a report Tuesday that says the lack of cooperation contributed to last year’s Navy Yard shooting.
Once the government does dole out a secret clearance to an individual, there are few avenues for revoking it. House investigators said that is one reason Aaron Alexis was still on the cleared list and was able to access the Navy Yard in September, going on a deadly shooting spree that revealed gaping holes in the screening process.
The report, by Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, calls for clearances to be reviewed regularly, proposes withholding some federal aid from localities that refuse to cooperate in background investigations, and says investigators should be able to look at what people are posting publicly on social media websites before granting clearance — something that is barred under existing policy.
“No legislation or congressional action can repair the damage that Aaron Alexis inflicted on both the families of his victims as well as the nation as a whole,” the report concludes. “Nonetheless, Congress has a responsibility to investigate the process that permitted Aaron Alexis to receive and maintain a security clearance, and Congress must take steps to improve that process to prevent dangerous people from gaining access to secure federal facilities and information.”
The report points to a number of lapses that contributed to Alexis’ ability to obtain and hold on to his security clearance Sept. 16, when he walked into Building 197, opened fire and killed 12 people over the course of a 69-minute spree before he was shot and killed by police.
On Tuesday, the oversight committee will hold a hearing on the clearance process. Scheduled to testify are the director of the Office of Personnel Management, OPM’s internal auditor, a Defense Department official in charge of personnel, and the heads of OPM’s chief clearance investigation contractors.
A number of the problems with Alexis’ clearance have been well-documented, including a failure to fully check his criminal history.
But the 45-page report from committee Republicans digs deeper.
In one finding, the Republicans said, more than 450 law enforcement agencies across the country don’t fully cooperate with federal background investigations.
The federal government maintains a list of those jurisdictions, which include the District of Columbia, Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York, and Newark, N.J. The listing for New York says the city does not “cooperate in any way, shape or form.”
In the case of the District, the list says the city “does not cooperate” and suggests that investigators go to the city courthouse instead of asking police for help.
But the case of the Navy Yard shooter shows why relying on a court document could be a problem. According to the report, Alexis was arrested in Seattle in 2004 after shooting out the tires of a car, which he claimed he did after he had an anger-driven “black-out.” Because of an apparent mix-up, he was never prosecuted.
He didn’t include the arrest on his security clearance application. After an investigator found out about the arrest, Alexis said he had “deflated” the tires, but never mentioned that he used a gun. He also said the incident was part of a back-and-forth with the car’s owner, but never mentioned his self-described blackout.
The full Seattle police report contradicted Alexis’ claims, but the background investigator never saw that because the police told the investigator to use the less-complete court records instead.
“Unquestionably, the police report contains more detailed and relevant information about the 2004 Alexis incident. An adjudicator needs the type of information in the police report. Yet, too often, that information is never passed along,” the Republicans’ report said.
Republicans said one solution would be to dock localities’ federal aid payments until they agree to cooperate fully with background investigations.
They also recommended unleashing investigators to look at online social media presence.
Current guidelines bar investigators from using the Internet for anything other than checking information such as addresses. But the Republicans’ report said investigators could learn a lot just by having access to what someone posts publicly on Twitter accounts or Facebook pages.
Under the existing background check system, responsibility is divided. An agency that wants an employee cleared asks OPM to conduct the investigation. The investigation sometimes is farmed out to private contractors. When the investigation is finished, the file is sent to the agency in question — for example, the Navy, in the case of Alexis — which makes a final determination about granting clearance.
The Defense Department is OPM’s biggest client for security clearances. It handled about 767,000 cases in 2012 and adjudicated 680,000 in 2013. The Defense Department has 460 adjudicators who decide whether clearances should be given, which works out to a staggering caseload for each adjudicator.
Overall, OPM prepared more than 2.3 million “investigative products” for federal agencies in 2012. About 30 percent of those were performed by the agency, while 70 percent were outsourced to three contractors.
The process differs depending on the level of clearance. Those like Alexis who gain secret clearance are interviewed only if their statements have inconsistencies. The clearance is good for 10 years, and there is no continuous re-evaluation. Instead, individuals are expected to self-report any problems.
In the case of Alexis, that meant that run-ins with the law, repeated breaches of Navy rules and two visits to Veterans Affairs hospitals in August were never brought to the attention of security clearance officials.
Roughly 4.9 million Americans hold security clearances ranging from classified to secret to top secret. The report said part of the problem is that executive branch agencies deem so much material classified that it creates a need for more people to be cleared. One solution, the report said, is to crack down on overclassification.