Obama’s Whistleblower Witchunt Won’t Work at DOD

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The U.S. has tried something like President Obama’s 'Insider Threat Program' before. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now. By Gabe Rottman

For two decades during the Cold War, an ultra-secret “mole” hunting squad at the Central Intelligence Agency, led by James Jesus Angleton, investigated hundreds of loyal government workers, primarily Eastern Europeans, in an obsessive search for Soviet spies based on tips from a questionable source. When all was said and done, many careers were ruined, no mole found and Angleton had lent his name to a new word for things conspiratorial and paranoiac: Angletonian.

The Obama administration is now on an Angletonian path, but on a meta scale throughout the government. Two years ago, the White House implemented the Insider Threat Program, an initiative created by executive order following the WikiLeaks affair. Not surprisingly, civil liberties groups fear the initiative will open the door to inappropriate and biased reporting based on racial and ethnic profiling, whistleblower retaliation and personal and political vendettas that will overload the system with bad information. These critics are joined, however, by career counter-intelligence experts, many of whom argue that non-professionals are simply ill-equipped to accurately identify potential threats.

The program requires any government agency with network access to classified information to design and implement an insider threat plan to better identify both spies and leakers (including whistleblowers seeking to reveal government fraud, waste, or illegality). The plans address both network and information security, but much of the focus has been on personnel security.

Implementing agencies must train all of their cleared workers on how to identify “high-risk” behavior by their colleagues like “stress,” sudden financial problems or “exploitable behavior traits,” as one Defense Department publication puts it. In certain circumstances and agencies, failure to report such behavior could leave employees open to disciplinary action or even, reportedly, criminal penalties. Some agencies have extended the program to all workers, not just those with clearances, and in many cases the training is far from comprehensive. It’s also unclear who will run these programs. McClatchy, which broke the story, only notes that the Pentagon is training managers and security officials at the Defense Department and contractors to set up “insider threat offices.”

Interestingly, of those looking at the program, few have noted the particularly acute problems posed by the program at the Defense Department, which will face special challenges for two related reasons.

The first is simply size. DOD is one of the largest employers in the world and — because of its size and mission — has the largest pool of security clearances in the government. In a total population of almost 5 million cleared government workers, the Defense Department has more than half, which include civilian employees, contractors and military personnel. 

Additionally, one of the more important government-wide counterintelligence services is the Defense Security Service, which is responsible for counterintelligence training and reporting for the entire defense industry. It also administers the federal industrial security program, which grants facility security clearances and provides security monitoring for more than 13,500 cleared, contractor facilities at DOD as well as 26 other government agencies. As a result, any insider threat guidance from DOD administered through DSS would apply very broadly.

By dragooning every cleared defense employee as a potential tipster (and potentially punishing them if they do not report), the Insider Threat Program will vastly inflate the universe of potential leads. The sheer volume of data generated by a program that not only invites, but requires, Defense Department workers to report “suspicious” behavior by colleagues will overwhelm the smaller number of investigators actually working on legitimate insider threats.  

The same “big data” issues have bedeviled the wider counterterrorism enterprise in the years following 9/11. Legislative and administrative initiatives have prompted unprecedented information gathering by the government without the requisite resources or technical ability to digest the data. False positives are, tragically, a frequent occurrence and are all too often the result of profiling based on a person’s race or ethnicity.

Equally tragic are the investigative failures in the overworked system, which was unable to detect in advance, for instance, the Boston bombers or the Detroit underwear bomber despite earlier tips to the government. In the case of Fort Hood shooter Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, the FBI’s Webster Commission Report specifically said that the post-9/11 “data explosion” contributed to the failure to properly assess emails between Hasan and Anwar al-Awlaki. Similarly here, by turning the entire DOD workforce into a tips factory, the number of leads generated by the Insider Threat Program will only increase the static on the line. 

The second problem arises from the government’s purported “indicators” of high-risk behavior. It is true that some traditional indicators of espionage like sudden and unexplained wealth, attempts to conceal foreign travel or the mishandling of classified information may provide leads for counterintelligence agents to initiate investigations. But opening the floodgates by requiring cleared workers to report every perceived instance of such behavior will only stress the investigators and increase the risk of system failure. 

The current initiative, however, goes beyond these traditional indicators and expands potential red flags, including things like stress, divorce, financial distress or other life conflicts that are commonplace. And the program gives agencies the ability to experiment more freely. As reported by McClatchy, for instance, FBI insider threat guidance warns security personnel to be on the lookout for “James Bond Wannabe[s]” and people with sympathy for the “underdog” or for a “particular cause.”

The fatal flaw in the “insider threat” detection system is that it is attempting to systematize something that is highly subjective. It asks individuals without extensive and proper training in counterintelligence to determine whether an individual is “acting suspicious.” Some individuals are going to see a spy or leaker around every corner, and unfortunately many also harbor biases that make them more likely to suspect certain individuals more than others. Racial and ethnic profiling, especially against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians, is an unfortunate fact of life, and government employees are as vulnerable to those biases as everyone else. Requiring workers to report everything they think is suspicious means a larger haystack of bad information. It also makes the needles look smaller because the data surplus strains investigators and makes it easier for the bad guy to hide his tracks.

It’s worth remembering that the Angleton program was eventually dismantled not just for principled reasons but because, pragmatically, the omnipresent suspicion and lack of independent checks on Angleton and his staff had hamstrung the CIA in its mission. Case officers couldn’t recruit sources or collaborate with friendly intelligence agencies. That operational risk, coupled with both the threat to government employees’ civil liberties and the danger that this will overwhelm counter-intelligence investigators, counsel strongly against this Angletonian initiative.

Gabe Rottman is a legislative counsel/policy adviser in the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office.

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