The Washington Navy Yard shooting rampage has prompted security clearance process reviews, says security clearance lawyer John Griffith.
The Sept. 16 shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard left millions of Americans – including lawmakers – questioning how an apparent loose cannon like Aaron Alexis could have obtained a security clearance.
Alexis is the 34-year-old who killed 12 people and injured eight others before being shot dead by police. In the days following this tragedy, sources revealed the loner had a history of mental illness, an extensive disciplinary record during his time in the Navy, and he had been arrested in two previous gun-related incidents in the past 10 years, an LA Times article states.
In spite of all this, Alexis was one of more than 4.9 million government employees and contractors who hold some confidential, secret or top secret security clearance, according to the 2012 Report on Security Clearance Determinations released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Since this incident, President Barack Obama has directed his budget office to conduct a government-wide review of security standards that pertain to contractors and employees of federal agencies. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also ordered a review into security and access to military installations worldwide, according to a Washington Post article.
“Tragic situations such as this one really enrage people, because in hindsight, it seems ludicrous that people like Aaron Alexis gain access to weapons and obtain security clearance,” says John Griffith, who specializes in security clearance law. “Just because a person obtains a government clearance that doesn’t always mean they have a spotless record. And just because they don’t have a spotless record that doesn’t always mean they’re unfit for duties that require clearance.”
There are mitigating circumstances that can enable someone with an arrest record or an unfavorable financial history to still obtain clearance. People who apply for security clearance must complete the SF-86 security questionnaire. The form asks for information on arrests, disciplinary actions, foreign influences and other information that could call clearance into question. Even if answers on the questionnaire paint the applicant in an unfavorable light, investigators take several factors into consideration, including how long ago the incidents occurred and whether the incidents have relevance to the person’s position and duties.
Sometimes applicants apply for clearance and receive a Statement of Reasons that outline the government’s intention to deny clearance.
“Even in this situation, there is an opportunity to appeal the decision and grant or restore clearance,” Griffith says.
A recent Washington Post article addressed how contractors like Alexis get clearances. “People with histories of alcoholism, drug use, criminal conduct and significant, delinquent debts” have successfully appealed and been granted clearance, the article states.
As an attorney who specializes in security clearance cases, Griffith’s goal is not to determine whether a client is deserving of clearance, but to ensure that each client is given a fair shake in the process.
“The tragedy at the hands of Aaron Alexis is a sad, unfortunate situation,” he says. “Thankfully, it is an uncommon situation.”
The government, the military and government contractor USIS, which performed the background check, all claim no red flags surfaced during his initial security clearance in 2007, according to a Sept. 20 WJLA news report. USIS is one of three companies the Office of Personnel Management contracts with to perform 70 percent of the government’s security screenings.
Griffith isn’t surprised this incident has prompted a review of security clearance processes.
“I think it’s productive to review the process in light of this tragedy,” Griffith says. “But overall, I believe our process works. Occasionally, some people initially are denied clearance and we are able to overturn that decision during an appeal. We will continue to work for our clients to ensure those who are truly deserving of clearance are granted it so they can continue their livelihoods.”
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