In their first hearing examining last year’s Navy Yard shooting, Republicans and Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee clashed on lessons to be learned from the tragedy.
The GOP focused largely on Office of Personnel Management policies governing the federal security clearance process that allowed Aaron Alexis access to Building 197 of the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16, when he fatally shot 12 people.
A report issued before Tuesday’s hearing suggested the 450 local police departments that refuse to cooperate with federal background investigators deserved some of the blame for allowing Alexis access.
Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., also pointed to the OPM’s lack of monitoring of security clearance holders and its prohibition on the use of Internet or social media in conducting background investigations as key shortcomings.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., the panel’s ranking member, argued that the majority’s report was “incomplete” and overlooked allegations of corruption and mismanagement at U.S. Investigations Services, the private firm holding contracts for the bulk of federal background investigation work.
“These revelations cry out for an investigation,” Cummings said in his opening statement, calling for more attention to be given to the implications of contracting out background investigations and the rise of USIS.
The Justice Department in October joined in a whistle-blower lawsuit against USIS, accusing the company of “dumping” at least 665,000 background-check cases on the OPM without conducting required quality reviews of its fieldwork. As the case has unfolded, 24 of the company’s officials have resigned, retired or been fired.
“When you say just a few bad apples, I mean, this is a little bit more than that,” Cummings said, pressing USIS CEO Sterling Phillips, who has been at the helm for 13 months, to explain the $16 million in bonuses and financial incentives the company received from U.S. taxpayers between 2008 and 2012 for reducing backlogs of work.
Other committee Democrats said they were shocked by the massive scale of the alleged fraud and asked whether USIS has been penalized.
OPM Director Katherine Archuleta said she had last week directed the quality review process be fully federalized, taking the work out of contracted employees’ hands.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., repeatedly asked whether USIS is “too big to be suspended?”
Issa and other Republicans focused on the shortcomings of local law enforcement and questioned the logic of ignoring the Internet trail of an individual when reviewing security clearances.
“Do you Google the person?” asked Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas.
The answer is “no,” but the OPM is reviewing new policies that might allow for searching social media or the Internet.
Issa said the contractors would be getting more scrutiny but also pointed out the strengths of federal contract work. Contractors can be hired and fired at will, without the merit system protections of the federal bureaucracy.
Becca Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Republican majority, rejected the Democratic accusation that the GOP report is incomplete.
“The Minority only sent the material that they wanted to include on Sunday night and — much like the excuse making we have seen on the roll out of HealthCare.gov — it did not place an appropriate factual emphasis on OPM management responsibility for poor contractor performance,” Watkins said in an email to CQ Roll Call.
She said the GOP report includes a full section on contractor quality, but “the Committee has found no evidence that the quality assurance review process played a role in granting Aaron Alexis a security clearance.”