Officials probing Aaron Alexis's background and possible motivation for killing 12 Navy Yard employees are facing the very real possibility that the massacre isn't a the result of a troubled man slipping through cracks in the system so much as an example of a flawed system working exactly as designed.
Early reports suggest that Alexis was a heavy drinker with anger issues and a history of run-ins with both the military and the law, including eight instances where Navy superiors cited him for misconduct and three occasions when he was arrested on a variety of charges, including possible gun crimes.
A military official familiar with the case, however, said that none of that would have been enough to raise the types of red flags that would have prevented Alexis from obtaining the badge that allowed him to walk into the secure Navy Yard compound without being searched.
The official's account may be part of the military's early attempts to avoid blame for the shooting, but it nevertheless offers a detailed look into the reasons Alexis may have been able to carry out his rampage.
The official said the Navy did a background check on Alexis when he enlisted in May 2007, but it turned up no irregularities. He received a "secret" clearance in March 2008 after completing an SF-86, the lengthy government-wide form that requires applicants to disclose if they have criminal convictions, financial problems, or ongoing treatment for mental issues unrelated to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Alexis didn't have any of those issues to disclose.
On the surface, that seems hard to square with the fact that Alexis was arrested in 2004 after walking out of his home and using a Glock handgun to fire two bullets into the rear wheels of a car belonging to a construction worker who Alexis claimed had disrespected him. Alexis admitted to shooting out the tires, but told police he had acted while in an anger-induced "blackout." He was arrested, but ultimately did not face charges.
That, the official said, is one of the keys to understanding how Alexis received and maintained his security clearance. The official said a service member would normally need to be convicted of a crime, not simply arrested, to lose his or her clearance. Alexis, for all of his troubles with the law, was never tried or convicted.
Alexis's misconduct during the four years he spent in the Navy also failed to raise red flags. He had one citation for disorderly conduct, but most of the rest were for relatively minor offenses like showing up late to work. Fox News reported that Alexis was demoted in 2008, for instance, as punishment for a daylong "unauthorized absence" from his post. He successfully appealed the move and won back his old rank, however. A Navy official said none of the misconduct rose to the level where superior officers would have tried to court-martial him or take away his clearance.
Alexis kept his security clearance when he left the military in January 2011. In September 2012, he got a new job with The Experts, a Hewlett-Packard subcontractor working on an IT project for the Navy. The company's CEO, Thomas Hoshko, told the Washington Post that he confirmed Alexis' security clearance with the Pentagon when Alexis was first hired and did so again this past June.
Hoshko told the paper that he wouldn't have hired Alexis if he had known about his prior arrests and that he relied on the military to ensure that people like Alexis deserved their clearances. The military official, by contrast, said the firm had the option of requesting and paying for the government to conduct a new background check on Alexis or any other potential employee, but that there was no indication that the company had chosen to do so. Hoshko and others from The Experts didn't respond to repeated emails and calls.
It's unclear if a new check would have uncovered anything that would have prompted military officials to give Alexis additional scrutiny to revoke his security clearance altogether, but that may have been one of the final opportunities to prevent the Navy Yard massacre.
"That's the 'what if,'" the military official said. "That's the big question mark."