Obama: Watch your co-workers

An unprecedented federal initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach.

STATESMAN WASHINGTON BUREAUJune 21, 2013 

Even before a former U.S. intelligence contractor exposed the secret collection of Americans' phone records, the Obama administration was pressing a governmentwide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions.

The Insider Threat Program has received scant public attention even though it extends beyond the U.S. national security bureaucracies to most federal departments and agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration, and the Education and Agriculture departments.

It emphasizes leaks of classified material, but catchall definitions of "insider threat" give agencies latitude to pursue and penalize a range of other conduct.

Government documents reviewed by McClatchy illustrate how some agencies are using that latitude to pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material. They also show how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for "high-risk persons or behaviors" among co-workers and could face penalties, including criminal charges, for failing to report them. Leaks to the media are equated with espionage.

"Hammer this fact home … leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States," says a June 1, 2012, Defense Department strategy paper for the program that was obtained by McClatchy.

The Obama administration is expected to hasten the program's implementation as the government grapples with the fallout from the leaks of top-secret documents by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed the agency's secret telephone data collection program.

The case is only the latest in a series of what the government condemns as betrayals by "trusted insiders" who have harmed national security.

"Leaks related to national security can put people at risk," Obama said on May 16 in defending criminal investigations into leaks. "They can put men and women in uniform that I've sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers, who are in various dangerous situations that are easily compromised, at risk. … So I make no apologies, and I don't think the American people would expect me as commander in chief not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed."

GRAVE CONSEQUENCES

As part of the initiative, Obama ordered greater protection for whistle-blowers who use the proper internal channels to report official waste, fraud and abuse, but that's hardly comforting to some national security experts, and current and former U.S. officials. They worry that the Insider Threat Program won't just discourage whistle-blowing but will have other grave consequences for the public's right to know and national security.

The program could make it easier for the government to stifle the flow of unclassified and potentially vital information to the public, while creating toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations of loyal Americans, according to these current and former officials and experts.

Some nonintelligence agencies already are urging employees to watch their co-workers for "indicators" that include stress, divorce and financial problems.

"It was just a matter of time before the Department of Agriculture or the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) started implementing, 'Hey, let's get people to snitch on their friends.' The only thing they haven't done here is reward it," said Kel McClanahan, a Washington lawyer who specializes in national security law. "I'm waiting for the time when you turn in a friend and you get a $50 reward."

GROUP THINK

The Defense Department anti-leak strategy obtained by McClatchy spells out a zero-tolerance policy. Security managers, it says, "must" reprimand or revoke the security clearances - a career-killing penalty - of workers who commit a single severe infraction or multiple lesser breaches "as an unavoidable negative personnel action."

Employees must turn themselves and others in for failing to report breaches. "Penalize clearly identifiable failures to report security infractions and violations, including any lack of self-reporting," the strategic plan says.

The Obama administration already was pursuing an unprecedented number of leak prosecutions, and some in Congress - long one of the most prolific spillers of secrets - favor tightening restrictions on reporters' access to federal agencies, making many U.S. officials reluctant to even disclose unclassified matters to the public.

The policy, which partly relies on behavior profiles, also could discourage creative thinking and fuel conformist "group think" of the kind that was blamed for the CIA's erroneous assessment that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction, a judgment that underpinned the 2003 U.S. invasion.

"The real danger is that you get a bland common denominator working in the government," warned Ilana Greenstein, a former CIA case officer who says she quit the agency after being falsely accused of being a security risk. "You don't get people speaking up when there's wrongdoing. You don't get people who look at things in a different way and who are willing to stand up for things. What you get are people who toe the party line, and that's really dangerous for national security."

THE BACKSTORY

Obama launched the Insider Threat Program in October 2011 after Army Pfc. Bradley Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from a classified computer network and sent them to WikiLeaks, the anti-government secrecy group. It also followed the 2009 killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, an attack that federal authorities failed to prevent even though they were monitoring his emails to an al-Qaida-linked Islamic cleric.

An internal review launched after Manning's leaks found "wide disparities" in the abilities of U.S. intelligence agencies to detect security risks and determined that all needed improved defenses.

PROGRAM PROBLEMS

Obama's executive order formalizes broad practices that the intelligence agencies have followed for years to detect security threats and extends them to agencies that aren't involved in national security policy but can access classified networks.

There are signs of problems with the program. Even though it severely restricts the use of removable storage devices on classified networks, Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed the agency's telephone data collection operations, used a thumb drive to acquire the documents he leaked to two newspapers.

"Nothing that's been done in the past two years stopped Snowden, and so that fact alone casts a shadow over this whole endeavor," said Steven Aftergood, director of the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "Whatever they've done is apparently inadequate."

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