WASHINGTON – Federal officials told a Senate panel they are revamping aspects of the nation’s security clearance system following the heavily criticized vetting of Edward Snowden and the Washington Navy Yard shooter.
The hearing Thursday before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs examined the adequacy of background checks and the security clearance system for federal employees and contractors.
It comes as officials investigate how Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old defense contractor and former Navy reservist, was able to acquire and maintain a secret clearance despite repeated brushes with the law, a series of angry outbursts, and concerns about his mental health. On Sept. 16, Alexis killed 12 people inside a Washington Navy Yard building where he worked before being fatally shot by police. He entered the property with a valid security badge.
Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said he was concerned that a “troubled, unstable individual” could have received a security clearance.
“We must have a system that does a better job of rooting out those with nefarious purposes and those who become deeply troubled and unstable. That system must identify those whose behavior signals an unacceptable risk to be entrusted with classified information or access to sensitive federal facilities,” he said.
Brian Prioletti, an assistant director for the Special Security Directorate at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), said his agency is retooling parts of the nation’s security clearance system.
Under current policy, an individual’s continued eligibility depends on a periodic investigation that includes a background check and adjudication conducted every five or 10 years for a top-secret clearance or a secret clearance, respectively.
He said the intelligence community is considering making changes to the time between reinvestigations. This “continuous evaluation” process would allow ongoing reviews of an individual with access to classified information to ensure he or she still meets the requirements for eligibility.
Prioletti said his agency is also looking into automated background checks and studying whether it can search social media websites for clues about potential risks from workers with security clearances.
“A number of pilot studies have been initiated to assess the feasibility of select automated records checks and the utility of publicly available electronic information, to include social media sites, in the personnel security process,” he said.
Navy officials have said that when Alexis applied for a security clearance he lied about a 2004 arrest in Seattle for shooting the tires of an unoccupied vehicle, and he failed to disclose thousands of dollars in debts. An investigative report from an Office of Personnel Management (OPM) contractor omitted the fact that Alexis had fired shots, court records in Seattle did not specify the circumstances of the arrest, and no charges were filed.
Alexis was granted a clearance in 2008 and held onto it despite numerous subsequent encounters with police.
Elaine Kaplan, acting director of OPM, said Alexis’ background investigation examined state court records, but not the Seattle police reports because that department and others had not provided those documents in the past.
For secret level clearances, like the one Alexis had, there is an FBI check done, which reveals arrests, but does not reveal the disposition of cases that are handled at the state and local level.
“The FBI record revealed that Mr. Alexis had been charged and arrested for what was called ‘malicious mischief,’” Kaplan said. “The reason that a police report was not obtained was because…Seattle did not provide police reports. So what we were referred to by Seattle was the state database.”
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a former attorney general, said she found it “incredibly shocking” that OPM would not pursue a police report in any of these arrest situations.
“The nature of the charge, looking at the underlying police report, can tell us very different information,” Ayotte said. “And a prosecutor may not have the elements to make a particular charge and the disposition may tell us nothing, but seeing a prior behavior here with Aaron Alexis, getting a police report would have flagged a very different set of conduct for anyone looking at that.”
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said there are two problems with the security clearance process: too much stuff that does not need to be classified and too many approved security clearances.
“If you markedly increase the amount of material that doesn’t need to be classified, you have to increase the number of people that need to have access to it,” he said. “We need to address both problems.”
Brenda Farrell, director of Defense Capabilities at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said a 2012 report found that government agencies had problems determining which positions need security clearances.
She noted that the security clearance only follows the position and not the person, so federal agencies must continuously validate whether a position should have access to classified information in order to tackle any problems of over-classification.
“If you over-classify, then you over-classify positions, starting the snowball effect of having 5 million people who have clearances now,” she said.
Multiple federal agencies are responsible for different steps of the security clearance process. Federal agencies determine which of their positions require access to classified information and which employees must apply and undergo a clearance investigation.
Investigators, often contractors for OPM, conduct these investigations for most of the government. OPM provides a report of the investigation to the requesting agency for their internal adjudicators to make a decision whether or not the person is eligible to hold a clearance.
The GAO has estimated that 87 percent of 3,500 investigative reports that DOD adjudicators used to make clearance eligibility decisions were missing some required information. The agency has also estimated that about 12 percent of the 3,500 reports did not contain the mandatory subject interview.
The GAO released a report on Thursday that found that thousands of federal employees and contractors approved for security clearances owed $85 million in back taxes as of June 2012. Approximately 4,700 of those owing money were federal employees, while the remainder were contractors.
The fact that many of these people received security clearances makes it obvious the system is broken, Coburn said.
A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill this week to require more frequent checks on government employees and contractors who are awarded security clearances.
The legislation requires OPM to do at least two audits of every security clearance at random times over each five years the clearance is active.