Senators Call for Investigation Into How Navy Yard Shooter Got His Security Clearance

Months after Edward Snowden, government contractors are coming under scrutiny. Again.

Guards check IDs of Navy Yard employees on Wednesday, two days after the shooting.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros Matt Berman
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Matt Vasilogambros Matt Berman
Sept. 18, 2013, 7:46 a.m.

Of­fi­cials should not have gran­ted Navy Yard shoot­er Aaron Alex­is se­cur­ity clear­ance. The signs were there: a his­tory of men­tal ill­ness, shoot­ing ar­rests, and an­ger-man­age­ment is­sues. But still he was cleared.

In a let­ter to In­spect­or Gen­er­al Patrick E. Mc­Far­land this morn­ing, four sen­at­ors — Claire Mc­Caskill, D-Mo., Ron John­son, R-Wis., Jon Test­er, D-Mont., and Rob Port­man, R-Ohio — re­ques­ted a re­view of the se­cur­ity-clear­ance back­ground in­vest­ig­a­tion for the Navy Yard shoot­er. You can read the full let­ter be­low.

The sen­at­ors are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in one as­pect of the shoot­er’s back­ground: He was a gov­ern­ment con­tract­or. The shoot­er was hired in Septem­ber 2012 by a sub­con­tract­or of Hew­lett-Pack­ard, and his se­cur­ity clear­ance was then ap­par­ently con­firmed with the De­fense De­part­ment. That se­cur­ity clear­ance was re­con­firmed earli­er this sum­mer. The shoot­er then used his secret-level clear­ance to get in­to the Navy Yard on Monday.

While it is easy to look at this situ­ation in hind­sight and won­der why he had ac­cess to the Navy Yard, which even­tu­ally al­lowed him to carry out the shoot­ing, sen­at­ors want a de­tailed ex­plan­a­tion from of­fi­cials on why his troubled past was not flagged.

More broadly, this could lead to fur­ther con­gres­sion­al in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to the level of ac­cess gov­ern­ment con­tract­ors are af­forded. The most re­cent and highly pub­lic ex­ample is ob­vi­ously Ed­ward Snowden, the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency con­tract­or who leaked a trove of clas­si­fied in­form­a­tion about sur­veil­lance pro­grams. Since then, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has scrambled to ex­plain to the Amer­ic­an people, law­makers, and in­ter­na­tion­al lead­ers the ex­tent to which the U.S. spies on its own cit­izens and people and gov­ern­ments around the world.

Em­bar­rass­ingly for the White House, Brazili­an Pres­id­ent Dilma Rousseff can­celed a state vis­it over con­cerns about the NSA’s sur­veil­lance pro­gram, which the lead­er cited in a phone call with Pres­id­ent Obama on Tues­day. While the trip was sched­uled for Oct. 23, talks with White House Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Susan Rice proved un­fruit­ful, be­cause dif­fer­ences in philo­sophy re­mained between the two coun­tries.

An­oth­er in­cid­ent oc­curred dur­ing the Ir­aq war, when private con­tract­ors killed a num­ber of un­armed ci­vil­ians in Ni­sour Square, while also be­ing par­tially re­spons­ible for de­tain­ee ab­use at the Abu Ghraib pris­on.

Sep­ar­ately, the In­ter­na­tion­al Code of Con­duct As­so­ci­ation was launched in 2011 by sev­er­al gov­ern­ments around the world, in­clud­ing from the United States, Switzer­land, and the U.K, to ad­dress these gaps in gov­ern­ment ac­count­ab­il­ity and over­sight for these con­tract­ors. Nearly 600 private se­cur­ity groups have signed up for this ac­cord since its launch­ing.

To be sure, a few high-pro­file ex­amples of gov­ern­ment con­tract­ors be­hav­ing badly is not in and of it­self a trend. There were over 4.9 mil­lion fed­er­al gov­ern­ment work­ers and con­tract­ors with se­cur­ity clear­ances in 2012, al­though the ex­act num­ber of con­tract­ors is more dif­fi­cult to pin down. But these few re­cent in­cid­ents are enough to bring heightened at­ten­tion to just how con­tract­ors get clear­ance.

It may not be wise to ex­pect Con­gress to act on gun le­gis­la­tion after the Navy Yard shoot­ing. But that doesn’t mean they won’t touch con­tract­ors.

OPM Let­ter on Navy Yard Shoot­ing

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