Navy Yard shooting: How did gunman maintain security clearance?

WASHINGTON (WJLA) - There is no denying the red flags that have surfaced after Monday's Navy Yard attacks and the questions as to how the gunman, Aaron Alexis, was able to maintain his security clearance despite brushes with the law and voluntarily seeking mental health treatment.

“There’s a gap in the system,” says John Berry. “The gap tends to be where someone has already gotten their clearance and is basically left on an honor system for the person to report it.”

Berry has nearly two decades of experience in helping people obtain or maintain security clearances. He knows every step of the process and says he can’t believe Alexis slipped through the cracks, but when it comes to clearances the sheer numbers are staggering. The Office of Personnel Management did more than 3.3 million investigations last year, checking more than 23 million items, which breaks down to 2,600 checks per minute.

The security application is a hefty 127 pages, with Section 21 getting a lot of attention. In Section 21, you don’t have to divulge mental health history if it’s not court-ordered or if it’s combat-related.

Retired Gen. Pete Chiarelli fought for that change and thinks altering it would be a huge mistake. Sen. Mark Warner agrees.

“We don’t want a number of our veterans who come back challenged with some level of PTSD to say ‘I can’t acknowledge those issues,’” Chiarelli says.

As a whole, the amount of information needed for security clearance has increased to 58 percent since 2005, while applications are being processed 75 percent faster - two equations, Berry says, that add up to the greater potential for error.

“The government has moved toward 'let’s ask more questions but spend less time looking at the answers,'” says Berry.

To keep up the workload, the government also contracts with several companies to conduct background checks. Once obtained, clearances can be held for up to 15 years and you can be out of the workforce for up to two years without re-applying, which some say is a loophole that needs to be closed. Others argue it's a necessity for contract workers to quickly re-enter the workforce.

The epic process is now done and reviewd almost exclusively online with 93-percent of applications electronically processed last year.