Come to Washington, and you learn some new terms. The Hill refers to Congress. Langley is the CIA. And if someone asks if you have a clearance, they want to know if you’ve passed a background check — not whether the team doctor says you’re ready to get back on the field.
If you answer “yes,” you’re far from alone. Nearly 5 million Americans hold a security clearance — deceased Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis was one of them.
Alexis first gained a security clearance in 2008. He received his clearance despite an arrest in 2004 and a troubling pattern of behavior. He then reportedly passed a reinvestigation earlier this year, despite a 2008 arrest for disorderly conduct, a 2010 arrest for firing a gun in his apartment and a documented history of violent mental-health problems.
Reportedly, the only red flag discovered during his investigation was a traffic violation.
Alexis should not have had access to classified materials or the credentials that allowed him to terrorize a secure military base. That’s clear. But his story prompts other questions: How many others are slipping through the cracks? And why is the security clearance process failing to protect not just Americans’ national security, but now our personal security as well?
As the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee dedicated to overseeing the nation’s federal workforce, we began asking these questions after Edward Snowden’s leak of sensitive information earlier this year.
The answers we’ve uncovered are troubling, and they should prompt deeper investigations and immediate reform to our security clearance and background check investigation process.
In June, we held a hearing that revealed a lack of thorough oversight imperils the security clearance process. Our hearing, conducted jointly with Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., exposed how the maze of federal employees and contractors conducting investigations lacks accountability, delays timely and complete approval of security clearances, and threatens our national security.
This problem was on full display after last Monday’s attack, when the CEO of Alexis’ contractor said his company never would have hired Alexis if it had known all the details of his personal history. He then said it was the Defense Department’s responsibility to properly vet Alexis’ background.
The Office of Personnel Management, which handles 90 percent of background investigations, contracts much of its work out to private companies — one of which is under investigation for the quality of its work. We now know that this company was responsible for conducting both Snowden’s and Alexis’ background checks.
At our hearing in July, the Office of Personnel Management inspector general told us that because of a lack of authority and resources, he could not perform proper oversight of the 2 million investigations the agency expects to complete this year, leaving contractors and government investigators with no oversight and no accountability.
We immediately introduced a bill, the SCORE Act, to give the inspector general’s office the authority and resources it needs to do its job. Our bill, a critical first step to making sure future Edward Snowdens and Aaron Alexises don’t slip through the cracks, was approved unanimously by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in July. It awaits a vote in the full Senate.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.