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Obama Administration Sought to Weaken Mental-Health Component in Security Clearance Background Checks


The Obama administration is on record as wanting to ban “assault weapons,” to limit the size of magazines, and to extend to the private sales of firearms federal background checks of the sort that Aaron Alexis easily and repeatedly passed. Indeed, when the Toomey-Manchin bill — which would only have done the lattermost — failed, the president took to the Rose Garden and threw a tantrum. It was, he said, a “pretty shameful day for Washington.” Background checks, you see, are key to preventing massacres.

But in Politico, Josh Gerstein writes that the administration was simultaneously working to ensure that, as they relate to security clearance at least, America’s background-check systems would remain easy for the mentally ill to pass through. Post-Navy Yard,

the federal government’s clearance process is facing a new wave of scrutiny that could push officials to move faster to cut off or deny clearances when individuals exhibit signs of mental trouble.

Looming questions about how the Navy Yard shooter held a security clearance while exhibiting mental problems such as hallucinations could upend an ongoing administration effort to revamp the clearance process to encourage people to seek treatment for mental health issues, experts said.

Indeed, the president himself is quoted as saying:

“The fact that we do not have a firm enough background-check system is something that makes us more vulnerable to these kinds of mass shootings,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday in an interview with Telemundo.

As is Senator Dick Durbin, who immediately took the senate floor to claim that Toomey-Manchin might have prevented the shooting:

”How could a man with that kind of background wind up getting the necessary security clearance for a military contractor to go into this Navy Yard?” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked on the Senate floor.

Nevertheless, before the shooting in Washington D.C.,

top officials in the Obama administration were stressing just how accommodating the security clearance system is to people who’ve experienced mental health concerns.

The Obama administration’s public focus on the security clearance issue earlier this year was triggered not by an effort to tighten up on clearances, but to make clear that many mental health issues posed no trouble to getting a clearance. The issue was of special concern to military victims of sexual assault, who said they were hesitant to seek counseling because of concerns that such visits could complicate security clearances.

During a briefing for reporters in April, a top government official stressed just how difficult it is to be denied or to lose a security clearance over mental health issues — a statistic the administration is unlikely to be celebrating now that the focus is on whether such background checks are too lax.

In March, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of Personnel Management announced proposed changes to the questionnaire used to apply for or renew a security clearance. Officials proposed moving away from the current mental health question’s focus on treatment or hospitalization and to instead ask applicants if “you had a mental health condition that would cause an objective observer to have concern about your judgment, reliability, or trustworthiness in relation to your work?”

The proposed new question suggests that behavior that was “paranoid” or “bizarre” should be reported, but that many conditions under treatment by a mental health professional would not be. However, POLITICO reported earlier this year that some experts were were concerned that a relatively black-and-white question was being replaced with something largely open to interpretation by the person filling out the form.

This is to say that while the president was trying to expand background checks to the private sales of firearms — and to force states to report more information, on pain of losing federal funds — he was simultaneously trying to loosen what constituted mental-illness prohibitions for security clearances, and to limit the consequences of having being diagnosed or treated. And, as Gerstein notes, this instinct — shared by many libertarians, mental health professionals, and progressives — is often applied to people who have documented firearms incidents in their history. Alexis, as we now know, had two such episodes in his past: He had shot a gun at his own ceiling, and had also shot the tires out of a car during neighborhood dispute. Nevertheless:

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, fretted that tightening background checks could have drawbacks.

“If you start excluding everyone with a gun violation or a conviction for smoking weed, eventually most Americans won’t be able to participate in federal contracts,” Thompson said. “If you take the ship yard shooter as an example, there are millions of people in America who fit his characteristics.

Indeed so. This is precisely why background checks of all types are so limited in their efficacy. They tend to be ramshackle, weak, easily circumvented, and subject to political considerations. The more honest gun-control advocates are open about the tiny, marginal effect that extending background checks to private sales will have on American violence. The main drivers, however, including the president, are not, characterizing checks as crucial and opposition to them as extreme. But those checks are only as strong as their weakest links.

Resnick observed that keeping Alexis off the Navy Base wouldn’t have kept him from killing workers there, if that was his intent.

“Even without clearance, a person determined to do violence could have simply gone outside the Navy Yard gate,” the doctor said. “He could go anywhere and unleash anger at the Navy.”

Correct, he could have done exactly that. And “a person determined to do violence” could quite easily have got hold of a gun, too.


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