While the debate on guns has fizzled after the Navy Yard shooting with the emergence of the actual facts about the weapons used in the crime, another question has remained. How did a man who had admitted to police that he was hearing voices and who had a number of brushes with the law manage to get a clearance onto a military facility? The clearance came from the same firm who also approved another high-profile embarrassment to the federal government:
USIS, the Falls Church government contractor that handled the background check for National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, said Thursday that it also vetted Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis for his secret-level clearance in 2007.
The company, which is under criminal investigation over whether it misled the government about the thoroughness of its background checks, said earlier this week that it had not handled Alexis’s case.
USIS spokesman Ray Howell said the company got new information Thursday.
“Today we were informed that in 2007, USIS conducted a background check of Aaron Alexis” for the Office of Personnel Management, Howell said in a statement. “We are contractually prohibited from retaining case information gathered as part of the background checks we conduct for OPM and therefore are unable to comment further on the nature or scope of this or any other background check.”
USIS, which was spun off from the federal government in the 1990s, has become the largest private provider of government background checks. With 7,000 employees, the company handles about 45 percent of all background checks for the OPM, congressional staffers say.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, who chairs the subcommittee that deals with federal contracting, blasted USIS and called for an overhaul of how security clearances are managed:
“From Edward Snowden to Aaron Alexis, what’s emerging is a pattern of failure on the part of this company, and a failure of this entire system, that risks nothing less than our national security and the lives of Americans. What’s most frightening is that USIS performs a majority of background checks for our government. We clearly need a top-to-bottom overhaul of how we vet those who have access to our country’s secrets and to our secure facilities.”
She noted that USIS does about two-thirds of background checks done by government contractors.
“That Alexis had a ‘secret’ security clearance and maintained it despite several violent episodes before and after the clearance was issued has reinvigorated lawmakers’ calls for a review of how security clearances are issued,” Reuters observes.
USIS is already under investigation and faces possible criminal charges for misleading the government on its performance, the Washington Post reported in June:
Federal investigators have told lawmakers they have evidence that USIS, the contractor that screened Edward Snowden for his top-secret clearance, repeatedly misled the government about the thoroughness of its background checks, according to people familiar with the matter.
The alleged transgressions are so serious that a federal watchdog indicated he plans to recommend that the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees most background checks, end ties with USIS unless it can show it is performing responsibly, the people said.
This point in particular might have application to the Navy Yard shooting:
After conducting an initial background check of a candidate for employment, USIS was required to perform a second review to make sure no important details had been missed. From 2008 through 2011, USIS allegedly skipped this second review in up to 50 percent of the cases. But it conveyed to federal officials that these reviews had, in fact, been performed.
The shortcut made it appear that USIS was more efficient than it actually was and may have triggered incentive awards for the company, the people briefed on the matter said. Investigators, who have briefed lawmakers on the allegations, think the strategy may have originated with senior executives, the people said.
Did that second review take place with Aaron Alexis? Due to the requirement to destroy records, we will probably never know, but this looks like it fits the pattern, at the very least.
The Post rightly noted in its June report that cutting off USIS would create a logistical headache for OPM that could last for years. That looks more like a necessity than an option now.