Senators seek probe into how Navy shooter got clearance

Wednesday - 9/18/2013, 4:20pm EDT

Key senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee are seeking answers into how the contractor employee responsible for the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard that killed 12 people obtained his security clearance.

In a Sept. 18 letter, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) requested the Office of Personnel Management's inspector general look into what type of clearance the shooter, identified as 34-year-old Aaron Alexis, held as well as what federal agency conducted his background investigation.

McCaskill and Tester are the chairmen of the subcommittee on contracting oversight and the federal workforce, respectively.

"I want to know who conducted his 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.

The letter asks the IG to look into whether proper review procedures were followed for Alexis' background investigations and whether the checks "address his pattern of misconduct, including his reported arrests on charges relating to firearms in 2004 and 2010 and his arrest for disorderly conduct in 2009."

Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the ranking members of the committees, also signed the letter.

Letter: Was OPM involved in check?

The lawmakers specifically asked whether OPM's Federal Investigative Services or one of the contractors FIS does business with conducted Alexis' investigation.

FIS, which conducts 90 percent of the federal government's security-clearance background investigations, came under fire for lax oversight in the wake of the National Security Agency leaks by former contractor employee Edward Snowden. The OPM IG, Patrick McFarland, told Congress in June that USIS, the company that performed a follow-up investigation of Snowden in 2011, is under criminal investigation for a "systemic failure" to perform adequate checks.

"There are real questions with regards to the effectiveness of our security process," Portman said in a release. "We need to figure out what went wrong and how we can fix the faults in the system to make sure that we improve the effectiveness and efficiency of this process."

Since 2007, at least 18 OPM or contractor investigators have been convicted of falsifying investigations, according to testimony McFarland presented to the Senate in June. In addition, there are more than 40 additional active inquiries into fabricated investigations.

In fiscal 2011, OPM conducted 2 million background investigations, according to agency statistics. Currently some 4.9 million government employees and contractors hold security clearances.

The Government Accountability Office removed security clearances from its annual High Risk List in 2011, in part because OPM made progress in reducing the time it takes to conduct background investigations. However, the quality of investigations remains a challenge. In a 2009 report, GAO reexamined 3,500 background investigations and found 87 percent of them were missing proper documentation.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee voted July 31 to approve a measure that would increase oversight of the security-clearance process. The Security Clearance Oversight and Reform Enhancement Act, which was introduced by Tester and Portman, provides new funding for the IG to investigate misconduct. It's currently awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

DoD, OMB undertake security reviews

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama and top administration leaders have also ordered reviews of the security-clearance process.

Obama ordered the Office of Management and Budget to review clearance standards for both employees and contractors across government. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter would lead a review of both DoD installation security and the clearance process.

"Where there are gaps, inadequacies and failures, we will address them," Hagel said at a Pentagon press briefing Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the DoD IG's office released a report detailing major flaws in the Navy's system for vetting some private contractors and granting them access to Navy installations. In an effort to reduce costs, Navy officials implemented an outsourced access-control system that failed to adhere to federal standards and allowed 52 convicted felons unfettered access to bases.

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