WASHINGTON – Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland on Tuesday sharply criticized a Northern Virginia-based federal contractor in charge of conducting a background check on Aaron Alexis, the man responsible for the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard that killed 12 people last year.
“We need to conduct a thorough investigation into how Aaron Alexis was able to obtain a security clearance,” said Cummings, a Democrat from Baltimore, during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. “If somebody on my block stole a bike, they would have a (criminal) record for a lifetime. When I look at this – where people are not doing their jobs and there is criminal activity – I want to make sure we get to that.”
Alexis was granted a secret security clearance in 2008 based on information provided by USIS, the federal contractor in charge of gathering data on applicants, after showing signs of what committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called “deranged” behavior, including shooting out car tires and being arrested for disorderly conduct that same year.
In addition to conducting a background check on Alexis, USIS was responsible for the check on National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.*
The company now faces fraud allegations from the Department of Justice, which claims USIS was paid for 665,000 background checks that were incomplete or never performed.
A congressional report released Tuesday found the alleged fraud “appears to have greatly reduced backlogs and resulted in significant financial rewards under the company’s contract with” the federal government, including $16 million in incentive awards granted between 2008 and 2011.
The report found that “senior USIS executives also benefitted financially,” including $1 million worth of bonuses and stock granted to former CEO Bill Mixon.
At Tuesday’s hearing, USIS CEO Sterling Phillips said the company is not responsible for granting clearances and shifted blame to more than 450 city governments nationwide – including Baltimore and, until recently, Washington – that refuse to provide criminal records to private contractors conducting background checks.
“USIS and OPM’s (Office of Personnel Management) other contractors have no role in deciding whether an individual actually receives or retains a security clearance,” Phillips said. “We only collect and report information and we do not even make a recommendation. The decision-making process is known as ‘adjudication’ and that authority lies solely with the agency requesting the clearance.”
To avoid potential litigation, USIS also does not use Google or social networks like Facebook and Twitter to gather data on applicants, further limiting its sources of information on candidates like Alexis. Once granted, security clearances are valid for a period of 10 years.
“For the entire federal workforce, is it not wise in this day and age to at least look at the Internet?” Issa said to Phillips at the hearing. “At least begin looking at this as a tool.”
Cummings has cosponsored a bill introduced by Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., that would provide real-time monitoring of applicants’ arrest records and other activities, withhold some funding from cities that refuse to provide this information to contractors, create a more electronically-accessible investigative database and shift some responsibility for conducting background checks back to the federal government.
“This is about making sure that people who get (security) clearances are cleared,” Cummings said of the bill, called the Security Clearance Reform Act of 2014.
Cummings is currently the only cosponsor of the bill, which was introduced Monday.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Altegrity Inc., the parent company of USIS, spent $330,000 in lobbying in 2013 and its PAC contributed $5,000 to Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, in 2012.
* A Capital News Service story that moved Feb. 11 about the background check into Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis mischaracterized the work of contractor USIS. The fifth graf in the story should have read: In addition to conducting a background check on Alexis, USIS was responsible for the check on National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.