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Company That Vetted Aaron Alexis Is Under Criminal Investigation

USIS, a private company that performs thousands of background checks annually for the federal government, said it was responsible for a 2007 background check on Aaron Alexis, the man police say killed 12 people during a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday.

"We are contractually prohibited from retaining case information gathered as part of the background checks we conduct for [the Office of Personnel Management] and therefore are unable to comment further on the nature or scope of this or any other background check," the company said in a statement.

USIS, however, has been under intense scrutiny after it revealed that it had also vetted NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The Snowden case triggered a congressional hearing in June, in which Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, revealed the company was under criminal investigation.

McCaskill said that 75 percent of all of the government's background investigations are conducted by contractors and of those, USIS conducts 65 percent of them.

"For its work for the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), USIS has received more than $200 million last year," McCaskill said. "We have received information that USIS is currently under criminal investigation by the Office of Personnel Management Inspector General. We have also received information that this investigation is related to USIS' systematic failure to adequately conduct investigations under its contract."

McCaskill did not go further, but a June 27 report from The Washington Post provides some detail. According to the Post, the Virginia-based USIS repeatedly "misled the government about the thoroughness of its background checks."

"After conducting an initial background check of a candidate for employment, USIS was required to perform a second review to make sure no important details had been missed," the Post reported. "From 2008 through 2011, USIS allegedly skipped this second review in up to 50 percent of the cases. But it conveyed to federal officials that these reviews had, in fact, been performed."

As we've reported, Alexis, who had access to the Navy Yard, received a "secret" level clearance in 2008, despite a 2004 arrest for shooting out the tires of a construction worker's car. It's unclear whether an arrest of that kind would endanger a security clearance and we don't know yet whether Alexis' background check flagged that arrest.

However, as Patrick McFarland, the inspector general for the OPM, explained to the Senate committee, the background checks performed by these companies is essential, because it is the information the government uses to determine whether employees or contractors should receive security clearances.

"If that background investigation is not thorough, accurate, and reliable, all the other decisions made related to the issuance of the security clearance are suspect," McFarland said.

Bloomberg, which first reported USIS was responsible for the Alexis vet, reports that McCaskill is again asking questions.

"I want to know who conducted his background investigation, if that investigation was done by contractors, and if it was subject to the same systemic problems we've seen with other background checks in the recent past," McCaskill told Bloomberg in statement.

Update at 7:59 p.m. ET. 'Pattern Of Failure':

McCaskill issued this statement, reacting to the latest news:

"From Edward Snowden to Aaron Alexis, what's emerging is a pattern of failure on the part of this company, and a failure of this entire system, that risks nothing less than our national security and the lives of Americans. What's most frightening is that USIS performs a majority of background checks for our government. We clearly need a top-to-bottom overhaul of how we vet those who have access to our country's secrets and to our secure facilities. I plan to pursue such an overhaul, and won't rest until it's achieved."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.