WASHINGTON — A month before a murderous rampage at the Washington Navy Yard, Aaron Alexis called the police in Rhode Island to complain that he had changed hotels three times because he was being pursued by people keeping him awake by sending vibrations through the walls.
When officers came to his hotel room early on Aug. 7, Alexis told them that a person he had argued with at an airport in Virginia "has sent three people to follow him and keep him awake by talking to him and sending vibrations into his body" via a microwave machine, according to a Newport, R.I., police report.
Alexis identified himself to the police as a Navy contractor, and he sought treatment from the Veterans Affairs Department for psychiatric issues, the New York Times reported, citing a senior law enforcement official. But it did not raise a red flag that might have prevented him from entering the military base in Washington where he killed 12 people Monday.
The episode in Rhode Island adds to a list of questions about how Alexis, who had a history of infractions as a Navy reservist, mental health problems and run-ins with police over gun violence, gained and kept a security clearance from the Defense Department that gave him access to military bases, including the Navy Yard, where officials say he opened fire before being shot to death by the police.
Time and again, Alexis' behavior fell below a level that would have brought a serious response, like a less-than-honorable discharge from the military or involuntary commitment to a mental institution, experts and officials said.
But the sheer number of episodes raises questions about the government's system for vetting people for security clearances, including the thousands of contractors who help run the nation's military and security system work. Though the cases are different, the access granted Alexis, a former Navy reservist who as an independent contractor serviced Navy computers, raises questions similar to those raised about another outside government contractor, Edward J. Snowden, who leaked national intelligence secrets.
"These two incidents combined suggest to me a very flawed system for granting security clearances," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who called for a congressional investigation into the granting of security clearances to government contractors.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama ordered the White House budget office to conduct a government-wide review of policies for security clearances for contractors and employees in federal agencies. In an interview with Noticias Telemundo, the president said the nation did not have a "firm enough background check system." He also called once again for Congress to enact legislation to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill.
"I do get concerned that this becomes a ritual that we go through every three, four months, where we have these horrific mass shootings," he said.
Many planets aligned to place Alexis, 34, at the start of the workday in the Navy Yard with a Remington pump-action shotgun firing down from a balcony and killing the employees, all civilians, police said. As an honorably discharged veteran, he cleared a basic hurdle to receive a Defense Department security pass. Despite his being investigated by police departments in Seattle and Fort Worth, Texas, for firing a gun in anger, no charges were filed that would have shown up in his FBI fingerprint file. Despite mental health issues — he twice went to Veterans Affairs hospitals last month seeking treatment for insomnia — he was never committed and so was legally able to buy in Virginia the weapon police said he used in the shootings.
Alexis, who was employed by an independent contractor called the Experts, worked on half a dozen military bases from North Carolina to Rhode Island this year, said the company's chief executive, Thomas E. Hoshko. If he had known of the police reports about Alexis that have surfaced in the news, "we would have never looked at him," Hoshko said.
In any event, it was the responsibility of the Defense Department to grant Alexis his security credential allowing him onto bases, known as a Common Access Card.
Pentagon officials said the Navy was responsible for his clearance, using a check of FBI records and another database with the Office of Personnel Management.
After the police in Newport responded to Alexis' call for help on Aug. 7, a sergeant who reviewed the report, Frank C. Rosa Jr., contacted the Newport naval base police and faxed a copy of Alexis' statements. It is unclear whether the account made it up the chain of command.
On Aug. 23, Alexis went to Veterans Affairs Hospitals in Providence, where he had been working as a contractor. Doctors there prescribed him the antidepressant pill commonly prescribed for insomnia, Trazodone, the Times reported, citing an unnamed federal official.
Five days later, Alexis went to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington where he had traveled to work on a job at the Navy Yard. Alexis, who had not been given many pills of Trazodone in Providence, said to the medical personnel in Washington that he was still having trouble sleeping. In that meeting, Alexis told the medical personnel that he was not using drugs, did not have suicidal thoughts, was not depressed or particularly anxious and was not having nightmares, the official said.