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. 

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