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Report on Navy Yard shooting notes problems in Seattle

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A report on the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard shooting in September, released this morning by the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, identifies several municipal police departments as being on a list of “non-cooperating” agencies when it comes to providing information to federal authorities conducting background checks for security clearance.

That list, compiled by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), includes departments in New York City, Newark, N.J., Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C. There are 450 agencies on the OPM list, the report states.

The report suggests there were problems with how the Seattle Police Department dealt with inquiries regarding gunman Aaron Alexis, and specifically the way local prosecutors handled the case after he was arrested in 2004 after shooting out the tires of a car in a dispute with some construction workers. Indeed, in that case, it appears SPD arrest reports were detailed, but prosecutors did not follow through and Alexis essentially walked. When inquiries were made to SPD about Alexis at the time he applied for security clearance, the department referred investigators to the local courts to obtain records.

The report notes that background investigators “did not obtain the police report for Alexis’ 2004 arrest for malicious mischief during the course of his Secret level clearance investigation.” Yet earlier in the report, it is noted that, “The investigator performing the local law check used the Washington Statewide Database to determine that the charges against Alexis had been dropped. Had the investigator taken additional steps to obtain the arrest record, it likely would have been provided to the investigator.”

This column covered the Navy Yard shooting and its aftermath here, here and here.

Also covering this story were CBS News, the Washington Post and Washington Times.

The 44-page report was released by Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). This same committee investigated the Fast and Furious scandal. Titled “Slipping Through the Cracks: How the D.C. Navy Yard Shooting Exposes Flaws in the Federal Security Clearance Process,” the report shows that Alexis was a troubled man with a history of behavior that should have raised red flags. But, according to the executive summary, “the federal security clearance process in place at the time allowed Aaron Alexis to slip through the cracks.”

“Unfortunately, some of the country’s largest local law enforcement agencies, such as the Los Angeles Police Department, are on that list,” the report says about “non-cooperative” local police departments.

“The New York City Police Department is also on that list, with a note that says ‘Does not cooperate in any way, shape, or form.’ The Newark Police Department is on the list, with a note that says ‘Will not fulfill any requests other than for law enforcement agencies’—despite the requirement in 5 U.S.C. § 9101 to cooperate with OPM. Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C.—two cities compromising the metropolitan region where the largest number of individuals holding clearances reside in the country—are also on the list. The Baltimore police department does ‘not release any records without an individual’s fingerprints.’ The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C. simply “does not cooperate” and suggests that an investigator ‘[g]o to the courthouse’.”

What emerges from the report is a troubling problem with bureaucracy that the House committee hopes to address. In a press release this morning, the Committee noted:

“No legislation or congressional action can repair the damage that Aaron Alexis inflicted on both the families of his victims as well as the Nation as a whole,” the report states. “Nonetheless, Congress has a responsibility to investigate the process that permitted Aaron Alexis to receive and maintain a security clearance, and Congress must take steps to improve that process to prevent dangerous people from gaining access to secure federal facilities and information. Congress, [the Office of Personnel Management], the Department of Defense (DOD) and other federal agencies must work together to tighten this process and ensure that fewer individuals like Aaron Alexis slip through the cracks in the future.”

In addition, the report noted, some individuals, such as Alexis, “are occasionally granted clearances that, had the adjudicator been aware of all the pertinent information, should have received more scrutiny and could have been denied.”

The Oversight Committee “plans to consider legislation to improve problems identified in the security clearance process.”

Among the problems that the committee’s investigation of the shooting revealed was this:

“Many local law enforcement agencies do not provide records to OPM investigators at all,” the report explains on Page 17. “As such, these agencies are not in compliance with federal law…

“Even statewide databases that OPM has approved provide only cursory information, including the date of offense, charge, and disposition,” the report adds. “These databases do not include information about the underlying facts that lead to an arrest. Under current practice, investigators are considered to have successfully completed a lead when they determine the disposition of an arrest. Investigators do not appear to be under any obligation to obtain—and jurisdictions face no penalties for not providing—the specific information about the actions by the applicant that led to the arrest. As was the case with Aaron Alexis’ 2004 arrest for malicious mischief, there can be a large gap between the actions leading to the arrest and the ultimate disposition of a case.

“Though Aaron Alexis did not disclose his 2004 malicious mischief arrest on his SF-86 (questionnaire for security clearance), both the FBI database check and a local law check uncovered the arrest. The investigator performing the local law check used the Washington Statewide Database to determine that the charges against Alexis had been dropped. Had the investigator taken additional steps to obtain the arrest record, it likely would have been provided to the investigator. As the investigator only had access to the information in the Washington Statewide Database, only minimal information was included in Alexis’ investigative file.”

The report notes that when Alexis was quizzed about the 2004 incident, he said he had “deflated” the tires on a vehicle without mentioning that he had shot them out with a .45-caliber pistol. The Seattle police report “was never obtained during” the background check investigation, the report adds.

Local news reports at the time of the shooting revealed more details about Alexis’ past problems involving firearms. Some of those stories are footnoted in the committee report. The report also discusses the gunman’s apparent problems with PTSD and anger management.

Alexis entered the Navy Yard on Sept. 16 last year armed with a Remington Model 870 pump shotgun that he had purchased two days earlier at a Virginia gun shop, after clearing a background check. He had cut off the stock and barrel, and carved messages into the gun reading “Better off this way” and “My ELF weapon.” He killed a dozen people and wounded several more before police fatally shot him in the head. The rampage lasted 69 minutes, the report said.

Many questions still linger, and the report will be analyzed, perhaps for many months.