The Department of Defense is racing to overhaul its background investigation procedures amid revelations that the Air Force missed multiple opportunities to report former airman Devin P. Kelley to the FBI for inclusion in the federal database, a move that would have barred Kelley from acquiring the assault weapons he used to kill 26 worshippers and injured 20 more at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Texas on Nov. 5.
The Pentagon is currently facing “enormous backlog in the investigations,” DoD’s Director for Defense Intelligence and Security Garry Reid said on Nov. 9, with some military personnel stuck waiting for “up to nearly two years” to receive top-secret clearance, well beyond the target timeframe of just under three months. “We are prepared to take this matter in hand and aggressively develop better approaches that can deliver quality investigations, at a sustainable cost, within acceptable timelines,” Reid said.
The changes to the DoD’s background check process were initiated well before Kelley walked into First Baptist. Section 951 of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act stipulates the Pentagon’s Defense Security Service would take over background checks from the Consolidated Adjudications Facility that makes 95% of all security determinations for the armed forces, transferring the bulk of investigative personnel from the Office of Personnel Management to the DoD. Under that law, Defense Secretary James Mattis was supposed to submit an “implementation plan” by Aug. 1, 2017, meant to launch by the following October.
But recent revelations regarding Kelley may throw this consolidation of background investigations into jeopardy. The Air Force already admitted its failure to report Kelley’s court-martial and bad-conduct discharge for beating his wife and step-son while stationed at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico to the FBI for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the go-to database for firearms-related background checks. But Reuters reports that, according to federal officials, the Air Force also failed to report Kelley to the FBI following the initial charges in April 2012 but prior to the airman’s formal conviction the following November.
Not only is this a failure to follow military procedure, as Reuters notes, but an especially alarming oversight given Keller’s erratic behavior following the initial charges against him. In June 2012, after Kelley was first charged, the airman escaped from a mental-health facility on the New Mexico-Texas border and fled to El Paso, where he was apprehended shortly afterward by police. Law enforcement officers were advised that Kelley “was a danger to himself and others as he had already been caught sneaking firearms” onto Holloman “to carry out death threats made on his military chain of command,” according to an investigation report obtained by KPRC. Presumably, the firearms in question were purchased after his initial charges, during a period when Kelley was clearly unstable.
There’s also the question of Kelley’s court-martial proceedings themselves. In 2014, the airman entered a pretrial plea deal arranged by Air Force Gen. Robin Rand, then a lieutenant general and now chief of Air Force Global Strike Command, that dropped several specifications before sentencing. In addition, Kelley’s sentence, 12 months in confinement and a reduction in rand, were handed down by a jury of officers and enlisted airmen rather than a military judge, a move that former Air Force chief prosecutor Don Christensen characterized as “disturbing.”
“[The military] has an archaic, ineffective sentencing system they have refused to reform,” Christensen told the Washington Post. “Sentences typically skew light in crimes of violence than what you see in the civilian world.” (Public affairs officials in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force told Task & Purpose that details regarding Kelley’s plea deal and sentencing would be part the record of trial that the branch is currently working to redact and release to the public as soon as next week).
How Kelley’s massacre in Texas will shape the DoD’s new background check procedures remains to be seen; when reached for comment from Task & Purpose, the Office of the Secretary of Defense did not immediately respond to request for comment. But it’s worth noting that in 1997, the Pentagon inspector general found that the Air Force failed to report a full 50% of its criminal case outcomes and 38% of fingerprint cards to the FBI from December 1995 to July 1996 — and as of 2015, branch still only reported 39% of fingerprints between June 2010 to October 2012. If the DoD is going to double down on fixing its background check procedures, don’t expect results by Christmas.