Obama Initiates Security Clearance Review After Navy Yard Shooting

Carolyn Kaster/AP

President Obama has directed his budget office to review the policy for granting security clearances “for contractors and employees across federal agencies” in light of the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, the White House announced Tuesday.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Office of Management and Budget will examine the standards for the security clearance process. OMB will conduct the review in coordination with the Director of National Intelligence Office -- which was already investigating contractor security clearance policy -- and the Office of Personnel Management, according to agency spokeswoman Ari Isaacman Astles.

“This is obviously a matter the president believes and has believed merits review,” Carney said.

Astles added the review will look at the “oversight, nature and implementation of security and suitability standards for federal employees and contractors.”

Aaron Alexis, the alleged shooter responsible for killing 12 civilians and contractors, had both a secret-level security clearance and a common access card granting him entry to the Navy Yard. Alexis originally obtained the clearance while working full-time as a Navy reservist. At the time of the shooting, he was working for The Experts, a subcontractor of Hewlett Packard, on a project to upgrade the Navy Marine Corps Intranet.

In the days since the shooting -- and as details of Alexis’ history of violence and mental illness have come to light -- lawmakers have expressed concern with the security clearance process.

“Questions are raised,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “How can a man with that kind of a background end up getting that kind of a security clearance for a military contractor to go into this Navy Yard?”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told reporters he may hold hearings on the subject.

“For those of us on [the committee], and I talked to a couple of colleagues about this, I think there’s a real interest in focusing on background checks for contractors,” Carper said. “We’re going to drill down on this…What can we learn from this awful experience? This awful tragedy? We can help reduce the likelihood of future deaths, whether it’s a military base or federal office or any other place.”

Carper added that while  the FBI has briefed him on its investigation, it was “too soon to say” if there was a lapse in Alexis’ background check.

A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Patrick MacFarlane, the Office of Personnel Management’s inspector general, to demand answers on how Alexis was able to earn his security clearance.

“[How] did Mr. Alexis’ background investigation address his pattern of misconduct, including his arrests on charges relating to firearms in 2004 and 2010 and his arrest for disorderly conduct in 2009?” the senators asked.

While Alexis was arrested multiple times for gun-related incidents, he was never formally charged with any crime.

“I want to know who conducted his background investigation, if that investigation was done by contractors, and if it was subject to the same systemic problems we’ve seen with other background checks in the recent past,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in a statement accompanying the letter. “While guilt ultimately lies with the perpetrator of this terrible crime, those who lost loved ones and were injured in this shooting deserve to know the answers to these questions.”

The Pentagon announced Tuesday it will launch a worldwide review of security and access at all Defense Department installations, and the Navy plans to report on its facility security procedures by Oct. 1. The Pentagon’s inspector general also released an audit that found the Navy Commercial Access Control System -- responsible for security at Navy installations -- “did not effectively mitigate access control risks associated with contractor access” as a result of efforts to cut costs.

While they involve separate policies, installation security and security clearances are intertwined. A George W. Bush administration memorandum that lays out the guidelines for granting employees and contractors access to federal facilities says a security clearance can be used in lieu of additional background investigations, meaning a flaw in one can lead to a flaw in the other.

“Personnel security investigations for the purpose of issuing security clearances…can be sufficient for the required background investigations” to grant access to federal installations, the memo states.

To address both of these issues, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a second review Wednesday into security clearances. The Defense Department will examine practices and procedures for granting and renewing clearances.

“Obviously, something went wrong,” Hagel said of the shooting at a press conference. 

About 4.9 million federal employees and contractors hold security clearances, according to the latest estimate by ODNI, 3.5 million of whom have the same secret level as Alexis. 

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.