Members of a Senate committee investigating the Washington Navy Yard mass shooting found numerous problems in the process of granting government clearances, including the one received by gunman Aaron Alexis.
Thursday’s hearing before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee followed a Justice Department announcement Wednesday that it would intervene in a lawsuit against US Investigations Services, the contracting company that conducts background checks for the Office of Personnel Management and the Director of National Intelligence.
The lawsuit was filed in July 2011 but unsealed Tuesday. It alleges that US Investigations Services engaged in “dumping” – or moving cases back to the Office of Personnel Management without going through the quality review process, said Committee Chairman Thomas Carper, D-Del.
Committee members questioned why these incomplete background checks would pass through both the personnel office and the requesting government agencies.
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“Any single point of failure has such monumental negative consequences that we need to do anything we can to make sure we don’t have a single one,” said witness Joseph Jordan of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
Brenda Farrell of the Government Accountability Office said a 2012 report found that government agencies had problems determining which positions need security clearance. That prompted Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., to question whether information is over-classified; nearly 5 million people currently have governmental security clearances.
“We need to create an environment where . . . we lessen the number of people that need a clearance,” said Coburn. “And then we need to create the expectation that you are going to be randomly checked to see if, in fact, you still deserve to have that clearance,”
Coburn also said he was troubled that 8,400 people out of the 5 million with clearances have failed to pay taxes.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., echoed Coburn’s concern.
“Taxes paid is pretty basic, so what else is going on out there that are slipping through the cracks on security clearances?” he asked. “That is right in front of our face and we’re missing that.”
The hearing addressed several examples of security breaches but mainly focused on the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16. Shooter Alexis killed 12 people before being killed by law enforcement.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a former prosecutor, said she found it “incredibly shocking” that the personnel office had not pursued a police report for Alexis.
Elaine Kaplan, the office’s acting director, said some jurisdictions, like Seattle, where Alexis’ police report was filed, do not comply with requests for certain information; instead, they routinely refer her office to the state database.
She admitted it is “problematic” that her office does not have access to information like this.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., stressed the importance of implementing random checks and stronger accountability for self-reporting on background checks.
Heitkamp asked how many people have been discharged from the government for failure to self-report - or for lying. No one was able to answer.
“When we give them the good housekeeping stamp of approval, which is what this security clearance is, that ought to mean something,” said Heitkamp.
She added that she used to do background checks on people involved with gambling in North Dakota. Alexis, she said, would not have passed.
“He could not have dealt blackjack in North Dakota, but yet he had a clearance that allowed him to come on to a Navy base and do serious, serious human damage,” she said.