September 17th, 2013

dc

Insecurity

Back in the early aughts, I worked for a defense contractor, and I was one of the few people on staff who didn't have a security clearance. I was hired to work on one of their rare non-defense contracts, one which did not require the contractors to have a security clearance, and since getting someone cleared was a time-consuming and expensive process, they decided to save the money and let me do without.

That part of my history is on my mind today thanks to yesterday's shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The gunman, Aaron Alexis, did have a security clearance, and was further cleared to work at that installation, so he had no trouble getting inside with his weapons. A lot of people are asking how Alexis managed to get his clearance, what with his "highly checkered" military career, his multiple arrests, and a history of mental health issues, and how he was able to purchase a shotgun at a local gun shop legally given that two of his arrests were for firearms violations.

Setting aside the latter question, my guess is that he was able to get the security clearance because, despite his issues, the U.S. Navy granted him an honorable discharge. According to the Washington Post article I linked to in the previous paragraph, the Navy was pursuing a general discharge, which is used to discharge service members whose "behavior [is] not sufficiently meritorious to warrant an Honorable Discharge, " but that those "proceedings were moving slowly, and it was unclear whether the Navy had sufficient cause to push forward," so when Alexis applied for a honorable discharge on his own initiative, they granted it. I imagine they were happy to be rid of him. The problem, of course, is that a general discharge is a red flag, and probably would have caused potential employers and whomever performed his background check to look more closely at his service record.

Still, one wonders why the investigator who did his background check didn't look at his service record regardless, or why the contractor didn't do their own background check before hiring him. I mean, we're talking about national security here, and it'd be nice to think that the background checkers were, you know, thoroughly checking people's backgrounds. Of course, it was nice to think that the bond rating agencies like Standard & Poor's and Moody's were checking the creditworthiness of all those collateralized debt obligations that later collapsed and took the economy with them, but we all know now they didn't.

The rating agencies said that they were worried that they'd lose business if they didn't give those CDOs better ratings than they deserved, and I wonder if the contracting firms who hire new employees and the agencies that grant the security clearances don't feel similar pressures. Defense contractors need employees with security clearances, so might they decide not to look to carefully at the backgrounds of whom they hire? The government agencies need the contractors to do the work, so might they decide to rely on shortcuts -- like not looking at an applicant's military service record if an honorable discharge was granted -- to speed up the process? Neither is particularly hard to believe.

Regardless of the explanation, this and the Edward Snowden incident demonstrate that the process for granting security clearances is badly flawed. President Obama has ordered a broad review of the government’s security check system, so one hopes that people like Alexis won't be able to slip through the cracks quite so easily in the future.