Aaron Alexis, who officials say shot and killed 12 people and injured eight others on Sept. 16, 2013, at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., had his federal security clearance renewed just two months before the rampage, despite reports of his psychological problems and being arrested for offenses involving guns.
Alexis’ ability to pass the government’s security-check system has prompted questions of how background checks are conducted and how long a security clearance is valid without review.
The day after the tragedy, President Barack Obama ordered a governmentwide review of security standards for contractors and employees in all federal agencies.
As a military IT subcontractor, Alexis, 34, was required to obtain a Department of Defense (DOD) secret security clearance. He worked for The Experts, a subcontractor of HP Enterprise Services that was contracted to refresh computer systems at the Navy Yard facility.
CEO Thomas E. Hoshko told CNN that Alexis had worked for The Experts under a secret clearance beginning in 2008 and had recently been rehired, after undergoing a complete background investigation and being cleared through the DOD’s security service in July 2013.
Yet several disturbing incidents have surfaced from Alexis’ past, including run-ins with the law and signs of mental illness.
He was a full-time Navy reservist between 2007 and 2011 and was honorably discharged after a “pattern of misconduct,” which included insubordination and unauthorized absences, CNN reported. The news network also reported that Alexis had recently contacted two Veterans Administration hospitals for psychological issues. According to law enforcement officials, Alexis had claimed to hear voices and see hallucinations as recently as August.
What’s more, he had been arrested at least three times during the past decade—twice for weapons violations. In 2004 he was arrested in Seattle, accused of shooting out the tires of a man’s truck in what he described as an anger-fueled “blackout.”
He was arrested in 2008 on a charge of disorderly conduct, in DeKalb County, Ga., and again in 2010, in Fort Worth, Texas, over an allegation that he fired a gun through the ceiling of his apartment at an upstairs neighbor. According to police records, Alexis claimed he accidentally fired the gun while cleaning it.
Former roommate Michael Ritrovato told CNN that Alexis was frustrated with The Experts because he believed he wasn’t adequately paid by the company after returning from a monthslong assignment in Japan.
Hoshko told The New York Times that the company had not been aware of Alexis’ arrest history and that the military had conducted his employment screening. “The latest background check and security clearance confirmation, in late June of 2013, revealed no issues other than one minor traffic violation,” the company said in a news statement. So why did the background screening of Alexis tragically fail?
“I don’t think the background check failed; I think the process failed,” said Jason Morris, president of background-screening provider EmployeeScreenIQ.
Especially with military verifications, because of the time it takes to complete them, some employers will start the checks and then “roll the dice” and hire the person before the results come in, Morris explained.
Attaining Security Clearance
The Defense Department’s Central Clearance Facility, at Fort Meade, Md., oversees the security clearances for the agency’s civilian contractors, according to ClearanceJobs.com, a job board for cleared federal and military workers.
Applicants fill out a comprehensive form, which requires personal identifying data as well as information on citizenship, place of residence, education, family, foreign connections, travel and employment history. Additionally, it asks for information about criminal records, illegal drug involvement, financial delinquencies, mental-health counseling, alcohol-related incidents and counseling, military service, prior clearances and investigations, civil court actions, misuse of computer systems, and subversive activities. The number of years applicants must cover varies from question to question—many require seven years, some require 10 years, and others are not limited to any period.
Investigations and interviews with applicants follow. It’s not clear whether Alexis had an interview for his most recent clearance. The investigation includes checking police records and credit history and verifying applicant-provided information through records searches.
“And if anything substantial is left out, it would be an immediate denial of the clearance,” Tim Clemente, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, told CNN.
So how did Alexis receive a clearance?
“The way it happens is a poor background check,” Clemente said.
The breakdown could lie in the time it takes to process a security clearance and the granting of an interim clearance. Many contractors are initially given the latter because of the length of time it takes to process a security clearance, according to ClearanceJobs.com. Alexis may have received an interim clearance based on the completion of minimum investigative requirements, pending the completion of a full investigation for the final clearance, Clemente said. Once the clearance-granting authority receives a properly completed form, it can provide an interim secret clearance in a few days.
In April 2012 the reported average processing time for secret clearances was 52 days. Lower-level clearances such as the one granted to Alexis are typically good for 10 years. Former service members who become private-sector contractors can also maintain their clearance during that transition.
Employers Are Ultimately Responsible for Safe Hiring
The issue for employers is ensuring that workers a third party hires are safe and qualified. Companies may not always be 100 percent sure that a thorough background check is being done on their contractors or temporary workers.
“We see breakdowns in this process all the time,” said Morris. “At the end of the day, contractors are wearing a badge with the company’s name on it, not the contractor’s name. Your contractors usually have the same level of access as your employees. Why would you do your background screening any differently?”
“Employers can insist in any contract for any service that any time a worker comes on premises, that worker has been the subject of a background screening,” said attorney Lester Rosen, CEO of Employment Screening Resources, a national background-screening company. “An employer must have a hard and fast rule: No worker supplied by a third party is allowed to work unless the worker has a background check.”
The background-screening industry is already facing greater scrutiny over the accuracy of its reports, according to industry experts.
Verifying the accuracy of background-check-report information and increased scrutiny of the screening industry are the top trends for 2013, Rosen told SHRM Online in January.
“One of the primary jobs of a professional background screener is to provide accurate and actionable information so that employers can make considered decisions on hiring issues,” said Rosen, author of The Safe Hiring Manual (Facts on Demand Press, 2012), a comprehensive guide for employment screening.
He advises employers to be more diligent in hiring screening firms. “Employers need to kick the tires and make sure to ask enough questions about background-check firms they may want to use for employment screening.”
The most crucial step you can take to protect your company from providers that engage in questionable or insufficient screening practices is to ask the right questions. See SHRM Online’s “Screening the Screeners” for good questions to ask prospective background-check providers.
Key steps for HR include:
- Requiring service providers and independent contractors to undergo the same background-screening process that the company’s employees go through.
- Requiring staffing firms to use a background-screening company that is acceptable to the employer.
“Employers need to be careful to make sure the vendor or staffing firm does more than go through the motions,” advised Rosen. Reports should be tracked and documented. As an extra precaution, employers should require the vendor to certify that the report has been scrutinized and all red flags investigated, he added.
“This may seem obvious, but it’s worth clarifying who has the responsibility to review background reports and determine eligibility to work.”
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.
Managing High-Risk Employees, SHRM Online Safety & Security, May 2013
Screening the Screeners, SHRM Online Safety & Security, January 2013
Connecticut School Shootings Focus Conversation on Workplace Violence Prevention, SHRM Online Safety & Security, December 2012
Resources to Help HR Deal with Violence at Work
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