Senators Call For Investigation Into Navy Yard Shooter’s Security Clearance

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Matt McClain / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Military personnel walk by the Navy Yard on Sept. 17, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Four U.S. Senators called Wednesday for an investigation into how Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis was able to maintain a “Secret” security clearance despite his history of erratic behavior, including two arrests involving firearms .

Democratic Senators Jon Tester and Claire McCaskill and Republicans Ron Johnson and Rob Portman have co-signed a letter asking the inspector general of the federal Office of Personnel Management for details on how Alexis was granted his clearance for sensitive work and whether that decision was made properly. The senators are the chairs and ranking members of two subcommittees of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee with oversight over federal employees and security clearances.

Alexis was arrested at least twice on gun related charges since 2004, and as recently as 2010. The latter instance, in which he fired at his upstairs neighbor’s floor after a dispute, led the Navy to initiate a less-than-honorable discharge process against him. In 2004, Alexis was arrested in Seattle for shooting at a construction worker’s car in what he described to police as an anger-fueled “black-out.” According to an OPM spokesperson, the agency’s investigation turned up the 2004 arrest before he was given a security clearance by the Pentagon.

According to a Pentagon official, records show Alexis was subjected to just one background investigation for his “Secret” clearance in August 2007, which checked national and local law enforcement agencies, as well as his credit history. His clearance was granted in March 2008, when Alexis was a Naval reservist. There is no evidence that Alexis was reinvestigated this year, government sources said, despite some media reports that he was. The Pentagon official said that when Alexis left the Navy and began working for a defense contractor, his clearance was reciprocally accepted, as is standard government policy. At the time “there was no unadjudicated derogatory information in JPAS,” the Joint Personnel Adjudication System, used to manage security clearance actions, the official added.

OPM’s Federal Investigative Service is responsible for managing 90 percent of government background checks, including those for Defense Department contractors. The agency has been criticized repeatedly for poor safeguards and quality controls, including by several Government Accountability Office reports dating back more than eight 8 years.

Mert Miller, the associate director of Federal Investigative Services, said in a statement that his agency, along with the Office of Management and Budget and the Director of National Intelligence, are reviewing security clearance oversight for federal employees and contractors.

Miller’s agency has come under fire for potential failures that may have allowed admitted NSA leaker Edward Snowden to renew his security clearance in 2011. OPM inspector general Patrick McFarland told the four lawmakers at a June hearing that a reinvestigation into Snowden’s clearance two years before he obtained and leaked highly sensitive documents this summer was flawed.

“I am here to inform you that there is an alarmingly insufficient level of oversight of the federal investigative services program,” McFarland said. The lack of independent verification of the organization that conducts these important background investigations is a clear threat to national security.”

Portman tells TIME that the Alexis and Snowden cases call for a thorough look at background investigations. “As we have seen in the case of Edward Snowden and now with the tragic events that transpired at the Navy Yard this week, there are real questions with regards to the effectiveness of our security process,” said Portman.  “We need to figure out what went wrong and how we can fix the faults in the system to make sure that we improve the effectiveness and efficiency of this process.”

The White House has already ordered an examination of the process by which contractors can attain security clearances, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.

“On the broader issue of clearances, as you know, DNI is currently undertaking a review of security clearance policy for certain contractors,” he said. “And I can tell you that at the president’s direction OMB is examining standards for contractors and employees across federal agencies. So this is obviously a matter that the president believes and has believed merits review.”

UPDATE: 5:43 p.m.: “OPM conducted the background security clearance investigation for Aaron Alexis in 2007, and the Department of Defense adjudicated his file and granted his security clearance in 2008,” an OPM spokesperson said. “OPM only conducted the 2007 investigation of Aaron Alexis and within that investigation, OPM did identify a 2004 arrest for Malicious Mischief.”

With reporting by Alex Rogers/Washington

The full letter:

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