Senators expressed frustration Thursday with the process used to grant security clearances to federal workers following the Edward Snowden leaks and Aaron Alexis' killing rampage at the Washington Navy Yard.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said that federal officials needed to regularly access reports from law enforcement to prevent the problem of insufficient clearance checks from reoccurring.
She pointed to a piece of legislation she had authored along with Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. The bill would require the government to do automatic, random searches of public records at least twice every five years to find out if there are any red flags.
"A lot of the existing security clearance structure relies on trust and self-reporting by existing clearance holders," explained Bradley Moss, a D.C.-based lawyer specializing in security clearance issues. There are currently no mandated random checks on clearance holders between five- or 10-year cycles of renewal.
Further, there was clear, bipartisan irritation about the lack of security clearance reform by federal agencies. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said that in 2005, Pentagon officials had testified that they were working on an automated evaluation system for security clearances.
"I know we've heard today, 'We're working on this.' ... 'We have an inter-agency working group.' ... 'We're doing research.' Again, this has been going on for a decade. A decade," Portman said.
Added McCaskill, "I think that if we do a gut check on this issue, we will realize that a lot of the work we have been doing around here is checking boxes. ... The notion that you're calling what you're doing 'quality control' ... is probably, I think, offensive."
In a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing, senators raised questions on a range of topics from the general overclassification of information by the government, to the way contractors gather information for a clearance investigation, to whether there are appropriate checks after the clearance is granted.
"People are dying" because of the way classification is handled by the government, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., apparently referring to the Navy Yard shooting in which 12 people were killed.
The hearing came the same week as news reports provided further evidence that USIS, a contractor that helps the government vet security clearance candidates, did not go through proper internal quality reviews. USIS was the contractor involved in investigating both Alexis and Snowden.
In the Alexis case, government officials defended the quality of the investigation, asserting that it was conducted properly — but that the parameters of the investigation could have been wider.
"We conducted the investigation that was required by the investigative standards," said Elaine Kaplan, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management. It was not "malfeasance" by USIS that prevented Alexis' mental health history from being forwarded to investigators, Kaplan said.
A month before Alexis went on a shooting rampage in Washington, he had a run-in with Rhode Island police during which he claimed to be hearing voices. That information was not available to those screening him for a security clearance.