Stop comparing Edward Snowden and Aaron Alexis

Both men were given security clearance by same private contract firm, but that's no grounds for false equivalence

Topics: USIS, Edward Snowden, Whistle-blower, security clearance, vetting, aaron alexis, NSA, Glenn Greenwald, navy vard shooting, Washington Navy Yard, Guns, private contractor, government contract, Gunman, ,

Stop comparing Edward Snowden and Aaron AlexisAaron Alexis (left), Edward Snowden (Credit: AP)

News outlets including Fox News, the Washington Post, the New York Times and more ran with a variation on the same headline Friday: The same government contractor firm that gave security clearance for NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden also vetted and OK’d Navy Yard gunman Alexis Aaron.

The point stressed is that the private firm USIS — the largest private provider of government background checks, which took over from a government-run operation in the 1990s — is negligent enough to give clearance to both whistle-blowers and mass shooters. It seems to me entirely possible, however, to apply skepticism to the private contractor without drawing the rhetorically violent false equivalence between Snowden (of clean record and ethical intent) and Alexis (of record marked by mental health struggles and criminal incidents).

USIS employs 7,000 people and carries out background checks for 45 percent of all the government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) background checks. As such, it’s of little surprise that both the files of Snowden, a former NSA contract worker, and Alexis, a civilian contract worker at the Navy Yard, passed through USIS’s vetting system. And, by government standards Snowden’s clearance can — post hoc — be read as equally if not more dangerous to its own interests as Alexis’. Indeed, the U.S. government is no doubt reeling from a greater international outcry in the wake of revelations about NSA data hoarding and spycraft than it is from news of yet another tragic shooting. The latter incident, of course, has already fallen along the similar politicking fault lines over gun control and mental healthcare in this country. Snowden’s revelations are not so easily handled by the government P.R. mill.

Yet in drawing a false equivalence between Snowden and Alexis in regards to security clearances, the U.S. media this week have pulled a cheap, if perhaps unwitting rhetorical trick, which paints the whistle-blower in a grisly light. Snowden had an entirely clean record when his background check was carried out. Indeed, for those who share my opinion that Snowden’s leaks were a bold public service (even James Clapper said they prompted “important debate”) the only thing that could keep such whistle-blowers out of government agencies and contracted positions would be if USIS vetted for good conscience. One hopes it does not. Unfortunately, self-selection and obedience seems to do USIS’s job for it on that front — there are too few Edward Snowdens.

You Might Also Like

Alexis’ case is different entirely. The gunman, whose case was vetted by USIS in 2007, had been arrested three years prior in Seattle after an incident in which he shot out the tires of a car, according to the Seattle Police Department. The police report, noted by the AP, strongly suggests a level of mental perturbation and rage issues:

Following his [2004] arrest, Alexis told detectives he perceived he had been “mocked” by construction workers the morning of the incident and said they had “disrespected him.” Alexis also claimed he had an anger-fueled “blackout,” and could not remember firing his gun at the victims’ vehicle until an hour after the incident.

In 2010, Alexis was arrested again for reportedly firing a bullet accidentally into his neighbor’s apartment. No charges were filed and this incident post-dated his USIS clearance by three years.

Meanwhile, commentators picking up on comments from journalist Glenn Greenwald about the timeline of his contact with Snowden have noted that the whistle-blower was in contact with journalists before he began working at his most recent government contracted job for Booz Allen Hamilton in February. But, it would have taken some of the most intensive government spycraft (the likes of which Snowden has shed light on) to vet Snowden from his Booz Allen position based on prior contact with journalists, which was carefully and covertly carried out by the whistle-blower and his media contacts (as a number of detailed profiles on the leaker, Greenwald and Poitras have illustrated).

It’s a fair point to stress that a profit-making contractor firm failed to keep appropriate tabs on the security clearance status of a man suffering from mental health problems, who owned guns legally and had illegally fired them in the past. Indeed, a healthy dose of speculation should be applied in investigating whether firms like USIS cut corners in the pursuit of greater profits. That is a story in itself. But such an investigation should not draw a false equivalence between Snowden the whistle-blower and Alexis the gunman.

Natasha Lennard
Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...