WASHINGTON — The government’s sprawling system of background checks and security clearances is so unreliable it’s virtually impossible to adequately investigate the nearly 5 million Americans who have them and make sure they can be trusted with access to military and sensitive civilian buildings, an Associated Press review found.
Case after case has exposed problems for years, including recent instances when workers the government approved have been implicated in mass shootings, espionage and damaging disclosures of national secrets. In the latest violence, the Navy Yard gunman passed at least two background checks and kept his military security clearance despite serious red flags about violent incidents and psychological problems.
The AP’s review — based on interviews, documents and other data — found the government overwhelmed with the task of investigating the lives of so many prospective employees and federal contractors and then periodically re-examining them.
The system focuses on identifying applicants who could be blackmailed or persuaded to sell national secrets, not commit acts of violence. And it relies on incomplete databases and a network of private vetting companies that earn hundreds of millions of dollars to perform checks but whose investigators are sometimes criminally prosecuted themselves for lying about background interviews that never occurred.
“It’s too many people to keep track of with the resources that they have, and too many people have access to information,” said Mark Riley, a Maryland lawyer who represents people who have been denied clearances or had them revoked.
The Pentagon knows there are problems. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a sweeping review of all military security and employee screening programs. “Something went wrong,” he said.
Separately, Congress has asked the inspector general at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to investigate how a clearance was awarded to Aaron Alexis, the Navy IT contractor who killed 12 people Monday inside a Washington Navy Yard building before he was shot to death by authorities. Just weeks ago, the Navy had warned employees under its new “insider threat” program that all personnel were responsible for reporting suspicious activity that could lead to terrorism, espionage or “kinetic actions” — a military euphemism for violence.