Deadly shooting prompts examination of clearance process

navy yard from wikipedia

The Washington, D.C., Navy Yard was the site of a shooting rampage Sept. 16.

In the wake of the Sept. 16 shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, top government officials announced they will review the systems and processes behind security clearances as well as physical security at Defense Department installations.

In a Sept. 18 press conference, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel vowed to find out where in the clearance process something went wrong that allowed shooter Aaron Alexis to maintain his secret clearance and DOD facility access.

"Where there are gaps, we will close them. Where there are inadequacies, we will address them. And where there are failures, we will correct them," Hagel said. "We owe the victims, their families and all our people nothing less."

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will lead two separate reviews to examine physical security at DOD facilities worldwide as well as the screening measures for security clearances. A separate independent review also will review those systems, and the Navy additionally is conducting its own investigation of the incident.

On Sept. 17, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said President Barack Obama has directed the Office of Management and Budget to investigate security measures for contractors and employees the federal government.

The announcement came on the same day that a DOD inspector general report was publicly released that revealed major flaws in a security screenings process that allowed numerous Navy contractors into DOD facilities without proper vetting. The reports stated that as many as 52 convicted felons regularly accessed Navy bases, despite the fact that those felony convictions happened before they were credentialed.

Typically, contractors are subject to a lengthy clearance process that hinges on three key decision areas: security, suitability and access. There are federal standards, adjudicative standards and Office of Personnel Management policies that govern those decisions, according to John Fitzpatrick, director of the Information Security Oversight Office at the National Archives and Records Administration.

The multi-step process for a security clearance normally includes numerous checks that should, theoretically, turn up any red flags. A candidate first is nominated by an employer to the government customer, who evaluates and either confirms or denies the candidacy. If the government client agrees with the candidate's nomination, the candidate then is directed to fill out a "tremendously complicated personal history statement," which includes every place of employment, every supervisor, every location of residence and other personal information, Fitzpatrick said.

After the candidate submits fingerprints and information and OPM validates that material, an investigation into the candidate begins, and includes exhaustive searches across multiple databases – state, municipalities, criminal records, FBI databases, financial bodies and other areas. That research, depending on the clearance level, can be followed up by interviews with the candidate's friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances, inquiring about information such as the candidate's trustworthiness, financial responsibility, lifestyle, professionalism and more.

Once the investigation is complete, a report is written up and submitted to the requesting agency, where an official uses 13 adjudicative guidelines to decide whether the candidate is worthy of the clearance sought. If the clearance is granted – and about 98 percent of the time, it is – officials inform the candidate, who then completes paperwork such as non-disclosure agreements. Officials also enter the candidate's information into a database.

In the case of Alexis, it is hard to tell where in this chain of events there may have been a failure. Questions about information-sharing and how often clearances should be re-investigated – it's every 10 years for secret, every five years for top secret – are dominating conversations about how Alexis was able to carry out the shooting.

According to Fitzpatrick, who is the former assistant deputy director of national intelligence for security and was instrumental in clearance reform in the past, those issues likely will be points of focus in the federal reviews to come. Also expect officials to examine base access decisions, access to classified information, hiring processes and security, Fitzpatrick said.

"If what we've heard about Aaron Alexis is true, the Navy Reserve in Fort Worth knew enough about him to want him out of their workforce," he said. "This is part of the same DOD that granted him a clearance; they did not connect the dots to say, 'hey, here's the relevant arrest information, the gunshot incident, the other stuff we've learned,' and share that with the relevant people to make the clearance decision."

The problem could be less about processes and more about information-sharing, Fitzpatrick noted.

"In general the questions and areas for suggestions of improvement are going to be around the quality of information and sharing that information for other decisions," he said. "If the Navy had that information, why didn't they use it to [rescind] access? How that information didn't get back to the right authorities is a question that needs to be answered."

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


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