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Lawmakers question Navy Yard shooting suspect's security clearance

Police officers stop a vehicle to check identification at the main gate of the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, September 17, 2013. REUTE
Police officers stop a vehicle to check identification at the main gate of the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, September 17, 2013. REUTE

By Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers are calling for a review into how the suspected shooter in Monday's rampage at the Washington Navy Yard received and maintained a security clearance, despite a history of violent episodes.

Aaron Alexis, 34, received a security clearance more than five years ago and it helped him obtain his most recent job as a technology contractor at the Navy Yard, where he allegedly killed 12 people before being shot dead by police.

Lawmakers say this most recent incident shows serious flaws in the federal government's process for issuing security clearances and vetting contractors - an issue laid bare earlier this year by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden who disclosed details about top-secret U.S. spying programs.

Democratic Senators Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester plan to send a letter to the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general, demanding answers about how Alexis' background check was conducted for his security clearance.

The OPM is the agency primarily responsible for overseeing federal background checks.

"I want to know who conducted his (Alexis') background investigation, if that investigation was done by contractors, and if it was subject to the same systemic problems we've seen with other background checks in the recent past," McCaskill said in a statement to Reuters on Tuesday.

"While guilt ultimately lies with the perpetrator of this terrible crime, those who lost loved ones and were injured in yesterday's shooting deserve to know the answers to these questions," she said.

One of the points they want reviewed, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters, was "how Mr. Alexis' background investigations addressed his pattern of misconduct, including his reported arrests on charges relating to firearms in 2004 and 2010" and a prior disorderly conduct charge.

The associate director of federal investigative services at OPM, Mert Miller, said in a statement, "In general, background security clearance investigations include information about an individual's criminal history, including criminal records, and that information would be passed on to the adjudicating agency."

Scrutiny of the security clearance process is just one security area that officials are reviewing in the aftermath of Monday's mass shooting.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is seeking a review of physical security and access at all Defense Department installations worldwide, and the White House said it will review standards for federal government contractors.

MISSING RED FLAGS

Alexis' initial background check was conducted as part of his service in the U.S. Navy Reserve from May 2007 to January 2011.

The OPM conducted a National Agency Check that was completed in August 2007 on Alexis and he was determined eligible to handle "secret" material in March 2008, a U.S. defense official said.

Other officials said that type of check includes a routine review of government databases, an FBI fingerprint check and sometimes checks with local police. The defense official said Alexis' vetting including local police checks and a credit check.

Sometimes the person applying for the security clearance is also interviewed by investigators, but the review is far less complex than the type of full-scale background investigation that is conducted on applicants for "top secret" clearance.

That check for his security clearance was conducted after Alexis was arrested in Seattle in 2004 for shooting a construction worker's car tires in an anger-fueled "blackout," according to the Seattle Police Department.

The "secret" clearance that he was granted lasts 10 years and was in effect during two other incidents.

In 2008, Alexis was cited for disorderly conduct in Georgia when he was kicked out of a club for damaging furnishings and cursing. Alexis was then arrested in 2010 in Texas for discharging a firearm in a case that was dropped after investigators determined his gun accidentally fired while it was being cleaned.

In 2011 Alexis received an honorable discharge from the Navy Reserve, even though the Navy had been pursuing a general discharge against him on a series of eight to 10 misconduct charges, ranging from traffic offenses to disorderly conduct, a military official said.

Private pre-employment background checks also apparently failed to properly flag Alexis as a security risk. The Experts Inc, an information technology company that hired Alexis to work on a project helping service the Navy Marine Corps intranet, said it had also enlisted a service to perform two background checks on him over the last year.

The checks revealed no issues other than one minor traffic violation, the company said.

'A MAJOR PROBLEM'

"Somebody didn't do their job, or the system we have is not working," Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told Reuters.

He expressed concern that an individual like Alexis who had possible anger issues and might have had a criminal record was able to receive a security clearance. "It's a major problem."

Tester said Monday's rampage should give momentum to bipartisan legislation he has sponsored that was aimed at improving security clearances after the Snowden incident.

The legislation would give the OPM inspector general more flexibility with funding for audits and other oversight activities and require OPM to fire or suspend investigators and contractors who falsify background reports.

"This isn't going to stop if we don't start taking some proactive policy measures," Tester told Reuters. "It looks as if the background checks are less thorough; it looks like corners are being cut with Snowden and now Alexis."

The legislation was approved by the Senate Homeland Security Committee in July but the timing for full Senate consideration is unclear.

Republican sponsors of the legislation, Senators Rob Portman and Ron Johnson, could not be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Jackie Frank)

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