WASHINGTON - The same federal contractor that vetted Edward Snowden, who leaked information about classified U.S. spying programs, also performed a background check that let the Washington Navy Yard shooter obtain a security clearance.
Now the contractor, USIS, is drawing fire from a U.S. senator asking how Snowden and Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis slipped through the cracks. The vetting process has also been included in an inquiry by law enforcement agencies into Alexis’s activities before his deadly rampage this week.
No company does more U.S. government background checks for clearances than USIS, which was awarded $253 million by the Office of Personnel Management last year. The company did about two-thirds of background investigations done by contractors, and more than half of all those performed by the U.S. personnel office, according to Sen. Claire McCaskill’s office.
“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,” McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said in a statement. “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.”
Alexis, 34, obtained a secret-level clearance from the Navy in March 2008 that would have enabled him to get the access card he used to get on the base. After leaving the Navy in January 2011, Alexis kept the clearance even with three arrests, a history of mental illness and a record of military misconduct. His clearance was good for 10 years and wasn’t subject to reinvestigation, according to a defense official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified.
Security specialists say USIS, a unit of Falls Church, Va.-based Altegrity Inc., owned by Providence Equity Partners LLC, is a beneficiary of a system where the number of people with security clearances surged to almost 5 million as of last year. Investigators are overworked and underpaid, security specialists say, and the government has become increasingly reliant on outside contractors to do background checks.
USIS did Aaron Alexis’s background investigation in 2007, Ray Howell, a USIS spokesman, said yesterday in an email. “Today we were informed that in 2007, USIS conducted a background check of Aaron Alexis” for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Howell said.
Just the day before, Howell said that USIS hadn’t vetted Alexis, who killed 12 people at the Navy Yard on Sept. 16 and then died in a shootout with police. The company can’t comment further because it’s prohibited contractually from retaining information gathered during its background checks for the personnel office, he said.
Merton Miller, associate director for federal investigative services at the Office of Personnel Management, said that the agency “has reviewed the 2007 background investigation file for Aaron Alexis, and the agency believes that the file was complete and in compliance with all investigative standards.”
Once an investigation is complete, Miller said, it is submitted to the “adjudicating agency” -- in this case, the Defense Department -- for review. The personnel office’s involvement with Alexis’s security clearance ended when it submitted the case to the Defense Department.
The Pentagon “did not ask OPM for any additional investigative actions after it received the completed background investigation,” Miller said.