Changes pursued in US security clearance system after Navy Yard shooting
WASHINGTON — The decision to grant a security clearance to a man who later killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard was made without a review of a critical police report, but background investigators still followed the correct standards, the top federal personnel management official told a Senate panel Thursday.
The Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is investigating the nation's security clearance system in the aftermath of the Sept. 16 shooting involving Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist and IT contractor.
The 34-year-old man was awarded, and held onto, a secret clearance despite brushes with law enforcement, a series of angry outbursts and concerns about his mental health that led Rhode Island police to his hotel room just one month before the shooting.
Elaine Kaplan, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, said background investigators who vetted Alexis did "what they were supposed to do" but acknowledged that they lacked a complete portrait of his past.
She said Alexis was approved for the clearance even though investigators never reviewed a 2004 Seattle police report that accused him of shooting out the tires of a parked car in anger, relying instead on court records that didn't detail the circumstances of the arrest.
Though Kaplan said the contractor that handled the background check followed the investigative standards, she acknowledged that current expectations may not be stringent enough.
"Are the standards up to snuff? Should we be required to get police reports, for example? Should we be required to get mental health information, even from someone who has a secret as opposed to a top secret clearance? All these things need to be looked at," Kaplan said.
"But it was not, in our view, a case of malfeasance on the part of the contractor. We believe the contractor did what they were supposed to do," she added.
President Barack Obama has also ordered the White House budget office to examine security standards for government contractors and employees across federal agencies.
Concerns about weaknesses in the security clearance system have surfaced not only with Alexis but with National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and with Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, currently imprisoned for leaking classified documents.
Federal officials said Thursday they were working to retool aspects of the nation's security clearance system, including the process of re-evaluating the behavior of employees and contractors who have access to sensitive information.
Holders of top secret clearances are subject to re-investigations every five years and those with secret clearances every 10 years.
But officials are pursuing the use of expanded automated checks, including through commercial and government databases, to make sure employees remain eligible to hold their clearance, said Brian Prioletti, an assistant director in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
He said officials also were studying the feasibility of using information from social media sites in determining eligibility for a clearance.
"We have to find that balance between the civil liberties and privacies of a U.S. citizen versus national security interests," Prioletti said.
Alexis applied for a security clearance with the Navy in 2007. Defense officials say he lied in his application about the 2004 arrest in Seattle and failed to disclose thousands of dollars in debts.
An FBI fingerprint check revealed the arrest, but an investigative report from an OPM contractor omitted the fact that Alexis had fired shots. Court records did not reveal details of the arrest and showed only that malicious mischief charges were not pursued.
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