Report: D.C. Navy Yard Shooting Exposes Flaws in the Federal Security Clearance Process

February 11, 2014

WASHINGTON – House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) today released a staff report on the  flawed security clearance process that allowed D.C. Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis to obtain and keep a security clearance despite a history of violence and signs of mental illness.  The report, entitled “Slipping Through the Cracks: How the D.C. Navy Yard Shooting Exposes Flaws in the Federal Security Clearance Process” details shortcomings in the security clearance process and recommends reforms.

“No legislation or congressional action can repair the damage that Aaron Alexis inflicted on both the families of his victims as well as the Nation as a whole,” the report states.  “Nonetheless, Congress has a responsibility to investigate the process that permitted Aaron Alexis to receive and maintain a security clearance, and Congress must take steps to improve that process to prevent dangerous people from gaining access to secure federal facilities and information.  Congress, [the Office of Personnel Management], the Department of Defense (DOD) and other federal agencies must work together to tighten this process and ensure that fewer individuals like Aaron Alexis slip through the cracks in the future.”

On September 16, 2013, the Committee began investigating how Aaron Alexis, the shooter at the Washington Navy Yard, gained and kept a Secret level security clearance despite previous criminal and unstable behavior.  The report findings reveal current shortcomings in the federal security clearance process and propose reforms to address them.

Key Findings:

-          Non-cooperation of 450 police departments with federal background investigators Federal law requires local law enforcement agencies to provide criminal history information to federal security clearance investigators.  But Federal law is vague on exactly what must be shared and many local law enforcement agencies frequently shun federal security clearance investigators, by providing only limited, if any, information.  New York City, Newark, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Seattle – where Aaron Alexis had a gun-related arrest – are all included on OPM’s list of cities with non-cooperating police departments.  Documents in the report detail incomplete information made available to background investigators, who did not know that a previous 2004 arrest of Alexis in Seattle involved a firearm and that a police report stated Alexis claimed to have suffered a “’black-out’ fueled by anger.”  (Pages 18-19 and 40-43)

-          Lack of continuous monitoringUnder current law, a person holding a Top Secret clearance must be reinvestigated every five years in order to continue holding the clearance, those holding a Secret clearance must be reinvestigated every ten years, and those holding a Confidential clearance must be reinvestigated every fifteen years.  In the intervening years, cleared individuals and their supervisors must report any derogatory information but there are no effective checks enforcing compliance beyond the renewal requirement.  Numerous violent incidents from Aaron Alexis’ post 2007 past – when he received his security clearance –  would have only been recognized when his clearance required renewal in 2017.  (Pages 32-35)

-          Regulations prohibit background checkers from looking at the Internet or social media when performing checksInvestigators conducting federal security clearance background checks do not see, search, or receive reports of the vast amount of information available online.  Nor do current federal security process guidelines allow the adjudicators who grant the clearances to access this information.  The current Investigators Handbook guidelines strictly prohibit the use of the Internet to obtain substantive information.  The Handbook does not address the use of social media, but instead includes a near-blanket restriction on the use of the Internet.  Regulations prohibit efforts intended to safeguard national secrets that many private employers conduct independently when making hiring decisions.  (Pages 35-38)

You can read the complete report here.