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Military background checks not re-examined for a decade unless concerns raised

Investigators continue to work the scene at the Navy Yard two days after a gunman killed 12 people before police shot him dead, in Washingto
Investigators continue to work the scene at the Navy Yard two days after a gunman killed 12 people before police shot him dead, in Washingto

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People who seek "secret" security clearances to work at U.S. military installations undergo background checks that are good for a decade and are not re-examined unless derogatory information is presented to authorities, defense officials said on Wednesday.

The department is working on a pilot program that would automatically send records of arrests or criminal charges to the appropriate defense officials. But the project is in the early stages and the Pentagon depends largely on individuals or their supervisors to report any misconduct, officials said.

"There's a requirement for self-reporting. And clearly, someone who is engaged in illegal behavior is not necessarily going to be disposed to self-report," one official said on condition of anonymity.

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.

The senior defense officials briefed reporters on security procedures at U.S. military installations after a shooting rampage on Monday by a former Navy Reserve sailor that left 13 people dead at the Washington Navy Yard, including the shooter. They declined to talk about the specifics of that incident.

The former sailor, Aaron Alexis, 34, of Fort Worth, Texas, had been working as an information technology specialist for a defense contractor.

Alexis received a secret security clearance in 2008 during his Navy Reserve service after undergoing an investigation by the Office of Personnel Management, which conducts most military background checks.

The check picked up a 2004 arrest for malicious mischief, but his clearance was granted anyway, an OPM spokesperson said. When he left the military and went to work for a private contractor, Alexis was granted a Defense Department identity card that gave him basic access to military installations.

Due to his prior secret clearance, he did not have to undergo another background check, which might have turned up a more recent record of arrests, misconduct and mental health issues.

"As an individual, your clearance is tied to your employer, whether it's the military service, whether it's a government activity or whether it's a cleared contractor," the senior defense official said.

"When that employing relationship terminates, the clearance technically terminates," he said. "However, in national policy, there is a procedure which allows for reinstatement of that existing clearance, provided that there's no derogatory information known."

'PRIVACY ISSUES'

The security clearance can lapse if it is unused for more than two years. But so long as it is activated within the two-year time frame, it can be taken up with no need to conduct another background investigation, the official said.

The background investigation for a secret security clearance includes a review of local and federal criminal and other records as well as a credit check and is good for 10 years, the officials said.

That same check is adequate to obtain a Defense Department Common Access Card, or CAC card, the form of identification needed to enter most U.S. military bases.

The U.S. military beefed up its security procedures after a 2009 shooting rampage in which U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan opened fire on unarmed soldiers at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas, killing 13 people.

Hasan, who said he acted in retaliation for U.S. wars in Muslim countries, was convicted and sentenced to death by a military jury in August.

But the defense officials said only 52 of the 89 security recommendations made after the Fort Hood shootings had been fully implemented. They said most of the remaining recommendations were in the process of being implemented.

A small number, such as establishing threat-management units, were still in the planning stages. They said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent out a directive in March urging completion of the measures quickly.

"We're still working through some of the privacy issues," a defense official said, such as whether to circulate non-criminal information and if so, how long the data should be kept on file and where.

"What we're doing is trying to make sure we have a system by which we are appropriately protecting (privacy), but providing information to the experts who need to know it," the official said.

Although the measures have not been fully implemented, the officials said they believed some of the recommendations, such as information sharing with local police and the FBI and training to deal with active shooter incidents, had helped in responding to Monday's attack.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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