Aaron Alexis, the nation’s most recent (alleged) mass murderer, had something in common with the nation’s most prolific leaker of national security secrets, Edward Snowden. Each had a national security clearance — Alexis to his killing ground at the Washington Navy Yard, and Snowden to a vast collection of top secret data.
OPPOSING VIEW: OPM improving vetting process
It’s enough to make you wonder how easily a highly trained spy might penetrate the government, and the closer you look, the more troubling the potential appears. Even in the best light, the system for vetting people appears slipshod.
Snowden, a high school dropout who worked for the government and then a private contractor, had his top-secret clearance renewed in 2011 based on interviews with just two people: his mother and his girlfriend, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Alexis won his security clearance in 2008 despite lying about a 2004 arrest for shooting out the tires of a man with whom he had been feuding — and getting caught in that lie.
Two cases, no matter how embarrassing, don’t make a trend. But there’s ample reason to see them as evidence of deep systemic problems, not aberrations:
- The federal Office of Personnel Management completed an astounding 87% of its investigations with required documents missing, according to a sampling in 2008 by Congress’ Government Accountability Office. Just as alarming, fewer than 1% of files were sent back for more data in 2007 by the Defense Department, which makes the clearance decisions.
- While OPM handles background checks and Defense grants clearances, the Director of National Intelligence is ultimately in charge of policy and oversight. Which means that when something goes very wrong — as it did with Snowden and Alexis — each agency has a scapegoat. It’s a recipe for no accountability.
- The number of people with security clearances is unmanageably huge. About 4.9 million people, including employees of private contractors, like Snowden, hold some level of security clearance, and the numbers are growing. Last year, OPM did 50% more top-secret investigations and reviews than in 2005. To cope with the overload, OPM outsources three of every four investigations to private firms. The biggest contractor, USIS, which handled the Snowden and Alexis checks, is itself under investigation for allegedly failing to adequately conduct background investigations.
- Clearances like the one held by Alexis are valid for a decade — a long time to trust that nothing will change in a person’s life.
In all, it must sound like heaven to a spy. Clearance is readily obtained, vetting can be cursory, information is loosely secured and accountability is diffuse.
Since the Navy Yard shootings, officials in many of the agencies involved have scurried to investigate and promise reforms. But they have a credibility problem. This mess had to be obvious to insiders, who ignored it. The scale also suggests it can’t be easily fixed.
Meanwhile, there’s no telling who might have access to secret information. Most malefactors aren’t going to shoot up a Navy yard like Alexis (allegedly) or give it to the public like Snowden. They’ll just spirit the secrets away.