How Aaron Alexis Got Security Clearance
Policy + Politics

How Aaron Alexis Got Security Clearance

REUTERS/Fort Worth Police Department/Handout via Reuters

A day after the Washington Navy Yard massacre that left 12 victims dead, plus the gunman himself, a disturbing picture is emerging of alleged shooter Aaron Alexis, a civilian IT contractor, including a long history of violence and incidents with guns.

Many of Alexis’ run-ins with the law took place after he left the Navy. But by Tuesday afternoon, the Navy admitted that he had been a problem sailor during his time as a reservist, from 2007 to 2011 – posing the larger question: How and why did this man still have security clearance in 2013?

While still serving in the Navy, Alexis was cited eight times for violations that included minor offenses, such as traffic tickets, to more serious offenses such as insubordination. The Navy also sanctioned him after he served two days in a Georgia prison in 2008 for disorderly conduct.

But the Navy also corrected an assertion made on Monday. Earlier, Navy officials had said that Alexis had received a general discharge, given to soldiers with a less-than-stellar record. Instead, because the general discharge process was taking too long, Alexis was given an honorable discharge.

It’s not clear whether the change in discharge would have altered Alexis’ ability to get the secret security clearance that allowed him access to the Navy Yard. According to Thomas Hoshko, chief executive of The Experts, a Hewlett-Packard defense department subcontractor that Alexis was working for, his security clearance was last updated in July of this year

"There had to be a thorough investigation,” Hoshko said. “There is nothing that came up in all the searches.”

The fact that nothing came up in the searches is either troubling or yet another instance of a bad apple slipping through the security clearance cracks. During a Senate hearing on how NSA Leaker Edward Snowden received clearance In June, government officials admitted the clearance process was in disarray, with some 87 percent of clearance checks never being completed.

At the end of that Senate hearing, Jon Tester (D-MO) summed up with an ominous quote. "This situation we have with Snowden, we shouldn't be surprised at all.” 

In the coming weeks, investigators will determine if and how the security clearance process failed. As of Tuesday, from what is so far known about Alexis, it's quite possible he wasn't properly vetted, allowing him to slip through the cracks.

In June, Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy and an expert on security clearance, said the clearance process was not as arduous as many think.

“It’s a process of vetting either government employees of contractors to ensure that they are trustworthy and loyal to the United States and therefore are eligible to have access to classified info,” he said in an interview.  “There are disqualifying factors: The person is heavily in debt, has an alcohol or drug problem, or has a history of sexual misconduct of criminal behavior. Otherwise, chances are you can get [clearance].”

Using these criteria, it’s clear Alexis should not have been eligible for secret clearance. Not only did the 34-year-old have a criminal record from his time in the Navy, he was also involved in a number of other incidents that should have raised red flags. Between his time in the Navy and his time as a civilian, there seems to be patterns of disturbing behavior and a troubling medical history that should have alerted someone.  

In 2004, Alexis was arrested in Seattle after firing three shots into the tires of contractors working close to his home. He was arrested but never charged, and the paperwork on the incident has apparently disappeared

Then, in Fort Worth in 2010, he fired a round through the ceiling of his apartment. He had complained on multiple occasions that the woman living above him made too much noise. But when confronted by police, he said the gun misfired while he cleaned it. A few weeks later, the apartment building began eviction proceedings.

Also on Tuesday, a federal law enforcement said Alexis had sought assistance for mental illness from the Department of Veteran Affairs as recently as last month. 

Alexis’ father also said that his son was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which his father attributed to Alexis' work at ground zero in New York in 2001.

Somehow, either all of this was missed, was never put together, or simply wasn't checked during the clearance process. According to Thomas Hoshko at The Experts, the Hewlett Packard subcontractor, Alexis had clearance dating back to 2007.

“We had just recently re-hired him. Another background investigation was re-run and cleared through the defense security service in July 2013,” he told Reuters.

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray told CNN, “It really is hard to believe that someone with a record as checkered as [his] could conceivably get … credentials to be able to be on the base.”