Navy yard gunman given security clearance despite 'lie' about arrest

Aaron Alexis, who shot dead 12, was given secret-level security clearance despite omission from application form

Aaron Alexis, the former US navy reservist who shot dead 12 employees at a Washington military base last week, was granted a secret-level security clearance even after an FBI database search revealed he had apparently lied on his application form, about an arrest.

An internal inquiry has established that when Alexis first enlisted, in June 2007, he declared on a security questionnaire that he had never been arrested. However, a fingerprint check on an FBI database revealed that he had been arrested three years previously, in Seattle.

He was still granted a special security clearance, after attending an interview and claiming that he did not think he needed to declare the arrest. Alexis provided only a partial explanation of the incident in Seattle, in which he is now known to have used a gun to shoot the tyres of car belonging to a construction worker.

A summary of the quick-turnaround navy inquiry – one of three internal reviews announced after Alexis's killing spree at the Washington navy yard seven days ago – was provided to reporters by a navy official on Monday. The official was not authorised to go on the record because he was providing a detailed breakdown of Alexis's time in the military, between 2007 and 2011.

Defence officials have previously acknowledged that several "red flags" were missed in Alexis's background, allowing him to achieve and retain a secret security clearance and work as a navy contractor despite a string of police-related and behavioral problems.

The inquiry raises questions for both the navy, which granted Alexis security-level clearance, and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the federal agency responsible for conducting background checks on government workers. It was revealed last week that OPM had contracted out at least one of Alexis's background checks to USIS, a Virginia-based company.

The assessment of Alexis's suitability for security clearance appears to have overlooked the crucial details of the incident in Seattle, which occurred in 2004. Alexis later told police he had shot the tyres of the construction worker's car after an "anger-fuelled" blackout. He was charged with malicious mischief, but the charge was later dismissed.

The Seattle police report which documented the incident did not feature in the OPM investigation, which was triggered after the FBI database revealed that Alexis had been arrested over an incident he failed to declare on his security questionnaire. Instead, it appears to have been based primarily upon an account of the Seattle incident provided by Alexis after he was called to an interview to explain himself. Detailing Alexis's side of the story, the OPM report says Alexis had an altercation with the construction worker "and retaliated by deflating [his] tyres". There is no mention of him having used a firearm.

In his interview, Alexis said he had chosen not to declare the arrest in Seattle on his application form, as required, because the charge had by then been dismissed. He also said his lawyer in Seattle had told him the incident would be removed from his record. However, one question on the application form specifically asks whether an individual has been arrested in the previous seven years, irrespective of charge or conviction.

"The subject committed this offense because he was retaliating for being intimidated by the male person," the OPM report concluded. "The subject does not intend to repeat this type of behavior because he would avoid any confrontation and notify authorities if a similar situation were to occur in the future."

Aaron Alexis
Aaron Alexis worked for Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 46. Photograph: Kristi Suthamtewakul/Reuters Photograph: Kristi Suthamtewakul/Reuters

Months later, after reviewing that OPM report – but not the Seattle police report – the navy granted Alexis secret-level security clearance. There was no reference to the shooting incident, or to the the failure by Alexis to declare his arrest. The only caveat to the security clearance was a reference to his poor credit history.

Although Alexis's work in Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 46 did not require secret-level security clearance, new recruits are often put through the process in case they should need it in the future. Military security clearances of the kind granted to Alexis are primarily designed to detect whether a recruit is susceptible to disloyalty or bribery from an enemy force.

The clearance lasted 10 years and therefore applied when, in 2012, a year after leaving the navy reserves, Alexis obtained a job as an IT contractor working on navy installations. The official who briefed reporters on Monday said he could not say "definitively" whether Alexis would have been denied a secret-level clearance had the navy known that he had lied in in his application.

The navy official said the police report of the incident in Seattle and the version produced by the OPM after interviewing Alexis "depict two very different events". The inquiry has recommended that all future OPM background checks "include any available police documents", rather than simply relying on the account given by the person applying for clearance.

The inquiry, which was into Alexis's service record and performance during his three years in the navy, also established that his commander was on the cusp of throwing him out of the navy in late 2010, after he was arrested over a second firearm incident, in which he fired a bullet into the apartment of a neighbour in Fort Worth, Texas, after a dispute over noise.

Alexis's commander's legal officer wrote up a memo recommending Alexis be removed from the navy, but the letter was shelved after a decision not to bring charges against him. Alexis had told police he had discharged his gun by accident while cleaning it.

Alexis left the navy of his own accord. He requested to leave the toward the end of 2010, under a scheme designed to downsize sections of the military considered to be overmanned. He was honorably discharged in January 2011, after telling commanders he wanted to go to college.


Paul Lewis in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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