Senators Call for Investigation Into How Navy Yard Shooter Got His Security Clearance

Officials should not have granted Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis security clearance. The signs were there: a history of mental illness, shooting arrests, and anger-management issues. But still he was cleared.

In a letter to Inspector General Patrick E. McFarland this morning, four senators -- Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio -- requested a review of the security-clearance background investigation for the Navy Yard shooter. You can read the full letter below.

The senators are particularly interested in one aspect of the shooter's background: He was a government contractor. The shooter was hired in September 2012 by a subcontractor of Hewlett-Packard, and his security clearance was then apparently confirmed with the Defense Department. That security clearance was reconfirmed earlier this summer. The shooter then used his secret-level clearance to get into the Navy Yard on Monday.

While it is easy to look at this situation in hindsight and wonder why he had access to the Navy Yard, which eventually allowed him to carry out the shooting, senators want a detailed explanation from officials on why his troubled past was not flagged.

More broadly, this could lead to further congressional investigations into the level of access government contractors are afforded. The most recent and highly public example is obviously Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked a trove of classified information about surveillance programs. Since then, the Obama administration has scrambled to explain to the American people, lawmakers, and international leaders the extent to which the U.S. spies on its own citizens and people and governments around the world.

Embarrassingly for the White House, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff canceled a state visit over concerns about the NSA's surveillance program, which the leader cited in a phone call with President Obama on Tuesday. While the trip was scheduled for Oct. 23, talks with White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice proved unfruitful, because differences in philosophy remained between the two countries.

Another incident occurred during the Iraq war, when private contractors killed a number of unarmed civilians in Nisour Square, while also being partially responsible for detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Separately, the International Code of Conduct Association was launched in 2011 by several governments around the world, including from the United States, Switzerland, and the U.K, to address these gaps in government accountability and oversight for these contractors. Nearly 600 private security groups have signed up for this accord since its launching.

To be sure, a few high-profile examples of government contractors behaving badly is not in and of itself a trend. There were over 4.9 million federal government workers and contractors with security clearances in 2012, although the exact number of contractors is more difficult to pin down. But these few recent incidents are enough to bring heightened attention to just how contractors get clearance.

It may not be wise to expect Congress to act on gun legislation after the Navy Yard shooting. But that doesn't mean they won't touch contractors.

OPM Letter on Navy Yard Shooting

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