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Senators question security clearance process

Aaron Alexis moves through the hallways of Building #197 carrying a Remington 870 shotgun in this undated handout photo released by the FBI.
Aaron Alexis moves through the hallways of Building #197 carrying a Remington 870 shotgun in this undated handout photo released by the FBI.

By Deborah Charles

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senators on Thursday questioned the government's security clearance process, calling it "shocking" that investigators doing a security check on accused Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis did not consult police records before giving him clearance.

In a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, senators peppered administration officials to explain how "secret-level" clearances could be given without having to check police records even if the applicant for clearance had an arrest history.

They asked Elaine Kaplan, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management for an explanation regarding Alexis, who went on a shooting rampage and killed 12 people plus himself at Washington's Navy Yard last month.

Alexis was a contract employee for the Defense Department and received a "secret" clearance in 2008 despite violent incidents in the past, including a 2004 arrest in Seattle for shooting out a car's tires.

A "secret" clearance is a mid-level security classification that allows the holder access to information considered secret and that could be damaging to national security if released. It falls below the "top-secret" clearance, which requires more frequent background examinations.

Kaplan said when the background check of Alexis was done in 2007, investigators discovered that Alexis had been arrested. But they did not check directly with Seattle police to obtain the arrest warrant, looking only into a Washington state database of court records to discover that the charges for "malicious mischief" had been dropped.

As a result, investigators did not learn that Alexis had shot out a car's tires in anger.

"I find it actually incredibly shocking that we wouldn't pursue a police report in any of these arrest situations, because the nature of the charge, looking at the underlying police report, having been a prosecutor, can tell us very different information," said Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte.

Kaplan said the OPM had followed all required protocols and had met investigative standards.

"Now, what we're looking at right now in the context of the review .. is, well, are the standards up to snuff? Should we be required to get police reports, for example?" Kaplan asked. "Should we be required to get mental health information even from someone who has a secret as opposed to a top-secret clearance? All these things need to be looked at."

Committee Chairman Tom Carper said while the committee had long urged the administration to cut its backlog of security clearance applications, investigators must not sacrifice quality for speed.

"Many national security experts have long argued the security clearance process is antiquated and in need of modernization," Carper said. "And given recent events, I think we have to ask whether the system is fundamentally flawed."

(Reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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