Military intelligence needs to take 'a hard look' at contractor role, says Obama nominee

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, panel Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) pressed Lettre on the contractor issue. 

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"We've had adequacy of our security clearance procedures raised with tragic impact in recent days," Levin said during Thursday's hearing.  

On Monday, Navy contractor and former petty officer Aaron Alexis killed 12 and wounded several more people during a shooting spree at the Navy Yard. 

Alexis, who had a prior record of weapon-related arrests, was killed by police during the shootout. 

Defense officials say Alexis obtained a security clearance while he was in the Navy and was not subjected to a second background check when he became a contractor after leaving the service in 2011.

"In your new position, if you're confirmed, there's gonna be some real responsibility" to close those gaps, particularly within the civilian contracting corps, that may have led to Monday's shooting spree, Levin added. 

Lettre vowed the Pentagon's intelligence directorate would play "a strong role" in supporting the multiple, departmentwide base security reviews being conducted in the wake of the Navy Yard shootings. 

As part of that role, Lettre would actively move defense intelligence leaders to "take into account the direction of the [congressional] committees to look at those issues," he added during Thursday's hearing. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday the panel planned to hold hearings on the security clearance process. 

The California Democrat had demanded clearance reform earlier this year, in the aftermath of the illegal intelligence disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. 

On Wednesday, Pentagon officials argued that sufficient checks are in place to ensure all clearance investigations are up to par, for military and civilian employees alike. 

"Its not just suitability check," a department official said, noting the department conducts extensive reviews of all security clearance investigations done by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). 

"All of the components of the investigation" are reviewed by the Pentagon, from the OPM findings to how the particular investigation was conducted. 

If any discrepancies are found in that review, the case is sent back to the OPM for further investigation, the official told reporters at the Pentagon. 

That said, Reed pressed Lettre on the growing role of contractors within the intelligence community, at the Pentagon and at other government agencies. 

"The concept of contractors ... is that they do things that ... are not essentially military," Reed pointed out. 

"And a lot of the intelligence efforts are really military," according to the Rhode Island Democrat. 

Reed openly questioned whether it was past time for "redefining what roles" contractors play in the Defense Department's intelligence operations, in the wake of Monday's massacre at the Navy Yard. 

In response, Lettre defended the civilian contracting corps working for U.S. military intelligence. 

"I do think there are instances where contractors bring in quite unique capabilities from a technology and an innovation perspective that make it hard to see us being able to get that capability ... any other way than," the nominee told Reed. 

But Lettre did acknowledge that efforts to reform how the Pentagon hires and handles civilian contractors might be necessary. 

"The role of contractors, particularly in the intelligence community, but also across the department, is something that the leadership team needs to put a lot of focus on in the next couple of years." he told the Senate defense panel.