Aaron Alexis and the Failure of the Federal Security Clearance Process

Security Clearance

A lot has been reported over the past several days about the failure of the federal security clearance process as it relates to Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter who murdered 12 people on September 16, 2013.

WHAT WAS KNOWN

The Navy granted Alexis a Secret clearance in March 2008 based on an NACLC background investigation. The Navy knew from the investigation that he failed to disclose on his clearance form a May 2004 arrest for malicious mischief in Seattle, WA for which he was never prosecuted. Alexis claimed the arrest occurred because he deflated another person’s car tires and that he didn’t disclose it on his clearance form because the charge was dismissed. He also had some previously delinquent debts, but he was in the process of repaying them.

While Alexis was on active duty with the US Navy Reserves from May 2007 to January 2011, his Navy command was aware of his 2008 arrest for disorderly conduct, his 2010 arrest for unlawful discharge of a firearm, and at least two Navy disciplinary boards related to poor performance and insubordination. In addition, he was subject twice to Non-Judicial Punishment and at least one former supervisor felt that he displayed indications of mental illness.

In January 2011 Alexis was released early from the Navy Reserves with an honorable discharge, and his security clearance was administratively terminated.

Alexis was hired by a defense contractor in September 2012 for a position that required a Secret clearance. His employer would have checked his JPAS (Joint Personnel Adjudication System) record and determined that his Secret clearance was eligible for reinstatement, because his last investigation was less than 10 years old and less than 24 months had elapsed since his Navy clearance was terminated. At his employer’s request, the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Office would have reinstated Alexis’ clearance within a few days without any additional investigation or adjudication.

To get unescorted access to military bases so that he could do his work as a defense contractor employee, Alexis also needed a Common Access Card (CAC), DOD’s version of an HSPD-12 Personal Identity Verification (PIV) card. Usually there’s a security vetting process before a person can be issued a CAC; however, rules implementing HSPD-12 allow Government agencies to issue PIV cards to anyone with a favorably adjudicated NACI or NACLC (or better) investigation without any further investigation or adjudication, provided there has not been a break-in-service of more than 2 years since the investigation. It doesn’t matter how old the investigation is. So, Alexis was probably granted a CAC based solely on a check of his JPAS record, which showed a favorably adjudicated NACLC from 2008.

While working at Newport Naval Air Station in August 2013, Alexis’ employer became aware of his instability. Over the course of his stay Alexis disturbed other guests by knocking on their doors in search of the voices he was hearing. Alexis’ mother advised his employer that he had a history of paranoid episodes. Despite being aware of this, his employer took no action.

WHAT WENT WRONG

These events highlight systemic problems in the federal personnel security programs:

  • No matter how old an investigation is, anyone with a favorably adjudicated NACI or NACLC (or better) federal background investigation can be granted an HSPD-12 PIV card without any additional vetting, provided they have not had a break-in-service of more than 24 months.
  • Ten years is too long an interval between periodic reinvestigations for a Secret clearance.
  • There are requirements for people with security clearances, their coworkers, and their supervisors to report through security channels matters that affect security clearance eligibility. However, insufficient emphasis is placed on these requirements, particularly coworker and supervisor responsibilities, and some requirements are vague. Failure to report such matters is a security violation, but when they’re discovered, people are rarely held accountable for their failure to report them.
  • Background investigations for Secret clearances are very limited when compared to background investigations for Top Secret clearances. This is clearly evident by the price difference between the two investigations. Currently the standard OPM investigation for Top Secret clearances costs $3,959; whereas, the standard investigation for Secret clearances costs $210.
  • Seattle police records indicated that Alexis was arrested for malicious mischief and unlawfully discharge of a firearm, but the records were never reviewed as part of Alexis’ 2007 NACLC investigation for his Secret clearance. Although federal law requires local law enforcement agencies to disclose arrest records to OPM investigators; it also allows agencies to charge a fee for this service. OPM refuses to routinely pay for this service. In such cases OPM investigators must search local criminal court record in place of police records.

Alexis’ military supervisors were aware of issues affecting his clearance eligibility while in the Navy Reserves. At least one supervisor was aware that Alexis had a mental health issue. Yet none of these issues were ever reported to the appropriate Navy security clearance officials. Alexis’ employer was aware that Alexis was emotionally “unstable” and had a history of paranoid episodes, but they also failed to report the matter through security clearance channels or take any other action to restrict Alexis’ access. Police at the Newport Naval Station were notified of bizarre conduct by a contractor who had access to their base, but they failed to take appropriate action.

THINGS THAT ARE BEING DONE TO FIX THE PROBLEM

New federal investigative standards were approved in December 2012, but may take more than a year to implement. One of the changes to the standards is the decrease in the periodic reinvestigation interval for Confidential and Secret clearances to 5 years. The exact scope of future investigations has not been made public, but it’s possible that the disparity between investigations for Top Secret and Secret clearances may narrow. It’s also possible that all investigations may be required to include checks of the most complete criminal history repository of law enforcement agencies (i.e. police departments and/or county sheriff’s offices).

New National Reporting Requirements are close to being approved. This will provide standardized basic reporting requirements applicable to all security clearance holders, their coworkers, and their supervisors.

The President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of the Navy have ordered broad reviews of the security clearance process.

OTHER THINGS THAT SHOULD BE DONE

In addition to revitalizing the security and suitability reform efforts that began in 2007 and speeding up implementation of a number of planned improvements, the following changes should be considered:

  • All federal employees and contractors with PIV cards or in positions of Public Trust should be required to immediately report potentially disqualifying events or conditions to their security officer.
  • All personnel with security clearances, in Public Trust positions, or granted PIV cards should be required to submit a form similar to an SF86C to their security officer once a year, indicating whether any potentially disqualifying events have occurred. Security officers should have to endorse the form, certifying they are not aware of any other unfavorable information. Supervisors should be required to submit annual certificates to their security officers, stating that they have reported all potentially disqualifying information pertaining to their subordinates.
  • Periodic reinvestigation requirements for PIV cards and for basic federal employment suitability/fitness need to be created.

 

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