Gaps in how the military conducts background checks enabled the shooter in Monday’s deadly Washington Navy Yard rampage to obtain a high-level security clearance and gain access to protected installations, despite a history of disciplinary problems in the Navy and run-ins with police.
Still unclear Tuesday was where the problems occurred that allowed the alleged shooter, 34-year-old former Navy reservist Aaron Alexis, to slip through a supposedly thorough examination of his conduct, some of which was easily found by simple Internet searches.
In the wake of the Navy Yard assault that left 13 people dead, including Alexis, President Barack Obama on Tuesday ordered a sweeping review of all federal agencies’ practices for allowing access to civilian employees and contractors who work for the government.
Alexis’ employer at the Navy Yard, a federal subcontractor based in Fort Lauderdale, Fl., called The Experts, said the Defense Department had confirmed his “Secret” security clearance twice in the last year, even though he’d been arrested three times between 2004 and 2010, twice for suspicious gun firings.
“The latest background check and security clearance information were in late June of 2013 and revealed no issues other than one minor traffic violation,” The Experts said in a statement.
But police records show that Alexis was arrested in 2004 after he shot out the tires of a car near his Seattle home; arrested in 2008 on disorderly conduct charges in DeKalb County outside Atlanta; and arrested in 2010 in Fort Worth, Texas, after his gun was fired into his ceiling and through a neighbor’s floor. He wasn’t prosecuted in any incident.
FBI spokesman Steve Fischer said the National Crime Information Center’s database, even with 75 million arrest records, is incomplete because it relies on voluntary reports from 18,000 local police departments across the country.
It was unclear whether Alexis’ arrests were in that database, which former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover launched in 1967.
“The security investigation in this case doesn’t seem adequate,” said Michael Barrett, owner of Diligent Innovations, a federal security contractor based in Arlington, Va.
Barrett said most security clearance checks don’t focus on past encounters with law enforcement, but instead on potentially embarrassing chapters in people’s pasts.
“The existence of security checks is primarily about making sure that people don’t have skeletons in their closets, because we were concerned about people being susceptible to blackmail,” Barrett said.
The Pentagon faces a backlog of five to six months on background checks, which places pressure on the outside firms that conduct most of them to finish their work quickly.
“These guys are pressured on getting the information, so some shortcuts could have been taken” in Alexis’ background probe, a federal contractor and former military officer with a “Top Secret” security clearance told McClatchy.
In a lengthy statement released Tuesday evening, a Defense Department official said Alexis received his “Secret” clearance – which is lower than “Top Secret,” but higher than “Confidential” – in March 2008, when he was serving as a Navy reservist in Fort Worth.
The security clearance was good for 10 years, or through March 2018, the Pentagon said, and Alexis carried it with him when he left the Navy in 2011 and later when he went to work for The Experts as a computer technician at the Navy Shipyard.
A Navy official said Alexis received an honorable discharge in 2011 after four years of reservist duty despite a number of disciplinary problems.
“There were a series of military conduct offenses,” the official said. “I can’t give you a number on them, but they ranged from unauthorized absence from work to insubordination to disorderly conduct. None of them rose to the level of court martial, but they were things that were handled in the conduct system by his chain of command.”
Once he was working at the sprawling Navy Yard, Alexis carried an access card provided by a private firm that Pentagon investigators criticized Tuesday for running a weak Navy-wide security program with poor background checks.
The Defense Department’s inspector general said the Oregon-based firm, Eid Passport, developed a system called RAPIDGate that gave 52 convicted felons “routine, unauthorized installation access, placing military personnel, dependents, civilians and installations at an increased security risk.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who chairs a key Senate subcommittee on federal contractors, demanded answers in a letter Tuesday to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus
“Yesterday’s tragic and senseless violence highlights the importance of complete, thorough background investigations of the contractors and subcontractors granted access to Navy installations,” McCaskill wrote.
Despite a push since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks for coordination between law enforcement and intelligence agencies, some state and local police have resisted sharing their data with federal agencies, Barrett said.
Many police departments “decided they were just absolutely not going to share any information with the FBI because it could get mixed up with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and the NSA (National Security Agency) and the CIA,” he said.
The FBI’s office in Clarksburg, W.Va., also runs the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which collects rich details of 11 categories of incidents that fall short of arrests.
FBI spokesman Fischer said, however, that only 30 percent of law enforcement agencies report these details to the database, and that in any event, it is not checked during government background investigations.