The checks also missed how, six years earlier, Seattle police arrested Alexis for shooting the tires of another man's vehicle in what he later described as an angry "blackout." Police said two construction workers reported seeing a man, later identified as Alexis, walk out of the home next to their worksite, pull a gun from his waistband and fire three shots into the rear tires of their car before he walked back home.
No charges were filed in either the Fort Worth or Seattle incidents.
The Experts said it had most recently used a company called First Advantage of Alpharetta, Ga., to search Alexis' past for criminal involvement. A First Advantage spokeswoman said Thursday The Experts asked only for a typical employment background check that only returns information on convictions, not merely arrests.
A search for any criminal history on a similar public records service, LexisNexis, also produced no arrest records. LexisNexis says it has coverage gaps for certain public records, including arrest reports for King County, Wash., and Tarrant County, Texas — both places where Alexis had firearm run-ins. Some local governments won't sell their data, but those arrest records would still be available from municipalities individually in what can be a tedious process.
Even with complete data, the databases probably would have missed a Newport, R.I., police report last month, which didn't list Alexis as a suspect in any wrongdoing but instead reported him complaining about voices wanting to harm him. He couldn't sleep, reports stated, and believed people were following him and using a microwave machine to send vibrations to his body. He called police and told them he couldn't get away from the voices.
On Aug. 7, local police did alert officials at the Newport Naval Station about being called to the naval defense contractor's hotel room. But officers didn't hear from them again.
In 2005, the Pentagon's security clearance investigations moved to the Office of Personnel Management, the government's human resources service. A Senate Homeland Security subcommittee said this summer that such a move decreased backlogs and led to more-timely responses for checks, but it criticized "insufficient information-sharing or reciprocity between government agencies, limited information technology capabilities and a lack of appropriate oversight over the process and those conducting investigations."
The gunman's access to the Navy Yard presented another question: How Alexis could use a security credential, called a "Common Access Card," that allowed him in and out. Issued under Defense Department authorization, the card is commonly used by both military personnel and eligible contract employees, and 3.5 million were in circulation in 2008, according to government figures.
Private contractors working on military bases need national security clearances to obtain access cards. Congressional officials involved in ongoing investigations about clearance problems said they were examining whether CAC credentials are awarded too easily and recipients not rechecked frequently enough.
Background checks can also be undermined by fraud. Federal prosecutors in Washington in the past several years have secured convictions against 16 background investigators for falsified checks involving lying about interviews that never occurred or claiming that they had reviewed records they hadn't. In Virginia this month, a man was sentenced to eight months in prison for coaching federal job applicants and others how to beat lie detector tests.
Katz, the government contracts lawyer, said he said he wouldn't have hired Alexis knowing all the information about him available now, mostly because his arrest for shooting a stranger's car tires suggest a worker who could harm fellow employees or be dangerous in the workplace. But that decision itself would be a judgment call.
"To lay the blame at the foot of the security clearance apparatus and to think that by changing some security clearance laws we're going to fix the problem is ridiculous," he said. "We have to look at the whole picture of what choices have we as a society made about gun laws, what choices have we as a society made about mental health."
Associated Press writers Stephen Braun and Pete Yost contributed to this report.
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