Obama’s crackdown views leaks as aiding enemies of U.S.: Insider Threats

Published on McClatchy, by Danny Dougherty, and also by Marisa Taylor and Jonathan S. Landay, June 20, 2013.

WASHINGTON — Even before a former U.S. intelligence contractor exposed the secret collection of Americans’ phone records, the Obama administration was pressing a government-wide 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.  

President Barack Obama’s unprecedented initiative, known as the Insider Threat Program, is sweeping in its reach. It 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 … //

… “If the folks who are watching within an organization for that insider threat – the lawyers, security officials and psychologists – can figure out that an individual is having money problems or decreased work performance and that person may be starting to come into the window of being an insider threat, superiors can then approach them and try to remove that stress before they become a threat to the organization,” the Pentagon official said.

The program, however, gives agencies such wide latitude in crafting their responses to insider threats that someone deemed a risk in one agency could be characterized as harmless in another. Even inside an agency, one manager’s disgruntled employee might become another’s threat to national security.

Obama in November approved “minimum standards” giving departments and agencies considerable leeway in developing their insider threat programs, leading to a potential hodgepodge of interpretations. He instructed them to not only root out leakers but people who might be prone to “violent acts against the government or the nation” and “potential espionage.”

The Pentagon established its own sweeping definition of an insider threat as an employee with a clearance who “wittingly or unwittingly” harms “national security interests” through “unauthorized disclosure, data modification, espionage, terrorism, or kinetic actions resulting in loss or degradation of resources or capabilities.”

“An argument can be made that the rape of military personnel represents an insider threat. Nobody has a model of what this insider threat stuff is supposed to look like,” said the senior Pentagon official, explaining that inside the Defense Department “there are a lot of chiefs with their own agendas but no leadership.”

The Department of Education, meanwhile, informs employees that co-workers going through “certain life experiences . . . might turn a trusted user into an insider threat.” Those experiences, the department says in a computer training manual, include “stress, divorce, financial problems” or “frustrations with co-workers or the organization.”

An online tutorial titled “Treason 101” teaches Department of Agriculture and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employees to recognize the psychological profile of spies.

A Defense Security Service online pamphlet lists a wide range of “reportable” suspicious behaviors, including working outside of normal duty hours. While conceding that not every behavior “represents a spy in our midst,” the pamphlet adds that “every situation needs to be examined to determine whether our nation’s secrets are at risk.”

The Defense Department, traditionally a leading source of media leaks, is still setting up its program, but it has taken numerous steps. They include creating a unit that reviews news reports every day for leaks of classified defense information and implementing new training courses to teach employees how to recognize security risks, including “high-risk” and “disruptive” behaviors among co-workers, according to Defense Department documents reviewed by McClatchy.

“It’s about people’s profiles, their approach to work, how they interact with management. Are they cheery? Are they looking at Salon.com or The Onion during their lunch break? This is about ‘The Stepford Wives,’” said a second senior Pentagon official, referring to online publications and a 1975 movie about robotically docile housewives. The official said he wanted to remain anonymous to avoid being punished for criticizing the program.

The emphasis on certain behaviors reminded Greenstein of her employee orientation with the CIA, when she was told to be suspicious of unhappy co-workers.

“If someone was having a bad day, the message was watch out for them,” she said.

Some federal agencies also are using the effort to protect a broader range of information. The Army orders its personnel to report unauthorized disclosures of unclassified information, including details concerning military facilities, activities and personnel.

The Peace Corps, which is in the midst of implementing its program, “takes very seriously the obligation to protect sensitive information,” said an email from a Peace Corps official who insisted on anonymity but gave no reason for doing so.

Granting wide discretion is dangerous, some experts and officials warned, when federal agencies are already prone to overreach in their efforts to control information flow … //

… (full long text).

(… with a longer comment on Hullabaloo: This really is Big Brother, the leak nobody’s noticed, by digby, June 22, 2013).

Links:

McClatchy, Truth to Power: /Homepage, Politics, Economy, Blogs, Special Reports, Cartoons, Gallery: Salvaging an ancient Buddhist city in Afghanistan, 15 Photos, Contacts;

World from Berlin: Do Costs of Hunting Terrorists Exceed Benefits? on Spiegel Online International, by staff, June 25, 2013 (Photo): Revelations that Britain has been expansively spying on German and European data has deepened a public debate over mass privacy violations. German editorialists argue that London and Washington have some explaining to do …;

Fast Food Strikes: What’s Cooking? on Labor Notes, by Jenny Brown, June 24, 2013;

Americans throw away 90 billion pounds of food a year, on The Fresno Bee, by Bethany Clough, June 16, 2013.

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