Privacy SOS

Protecting democracy by killing it: the Obama administration’s ‘Insider Threat Program’

President Obama has now thrown the book at seven eight whistleblowers and leakers, charging them under the Espionage Act of 1917, a law passed to criminalize anti-war dissent against US involvement in World War I. The passage of the Act and the climate of government repression during that period do not represent the nation’s finest moment, but we appear to be regressing back to those bleak days. Our time, like the second decade of the 20th century, is marked by paranoia, suspicion, distrust and government overreach.

Back then, anti-communist and anti-dissident hysteria resulted in the imprisonment and deportation of thousands of activists and radicals. Former President Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “He who is not with us, absolutely and without reserve of any kind, is against us, and should be treated as an enemy alien.” It was precisely this attitude that enabled the shameful 'House Un-American Activities Committee' and the worst intelligence abuses of the COINTELPRO period, when J. Edgar Hoover unleashed his FBI against peaceful dissidents and attempted to subvert democracy by using vast government resources to undermine First Amendment activity.

Fast forward to 2013. Nearly one hundred years after the Espionage Act was signed into law, our Constitutional law professor president is locking up and prosecuting government leakers with a ferocious passion. But he isn't content to simply throw the book at leakers after they have blown the whistle. President Obama appears to be dissatisfied with the massive roster of spies at his disposal, at last count numbering approximately five million. In what seems to be a full-throttled effort to stop the public from learning about nefarious government actions, the Obama administration wants every government worker to act as a spy, even if they work for the Department of Education or the Peace Corps. 

Government employees in the ‘national security’ world are already highly attuned to the state of permanent suspicion that the Obama program means to institutionalize and expand to the rest of the federal government. Time reports:

In a photograph posted online after Snowden revealed himself, his laptop displays a sticker touting the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a longstanding advocate for online rights and staunch opponent of government surveillance. That would have been enough of a warning sign to make it into his file, Smith says, but investigators wouldn’t have come across it because clearance interviews aren’t performed at their homes: “You’re not around that person’s personal belongings to make any other additional observations about that person’s characters.”

Worry not, fellow citizens, because the "Insider Threat Program" is here to save us from the truth, and from having to listen to anyone who may dare utter it. Now government employees may be encouraged to visit one another’s homes, to discern whether or not they exhibit free-thinking tendencies or possess books that criticize government actions. You can never be too careful.

Under the Presidency of Barack Obama, no suspicion is too insignificant to be recorded, no activity so innocent as to go unreported. See Something, Say Something isn't enough — because some of the bombs the government fears are simply made of words.

Political intimidation and the imposition of a kind of ubiquitous paranoia appear to be the goals of the far-reaching program, which “requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions.”

McClatchy’s Marisa Taylor and Jonathan S. Landay report:

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.

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


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 non-intelligence 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.”

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.”


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 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.

Yes, you read that right. It's 2013 and the government is encouraging government workers to snitch on the reading habits of colleagues. We’ve been here before, and we've seen where it goes if this kind of authoritarian impulse is allowed to metastasize. The results are predictable, dangerous, and shameful. 

The threat posed by the new "Insider Threat" program is not limited to the careers of government employees who might have unorthodox views. It is a threat to the fundamental character of our open society, as well as to public health, safety and the democratic process.

Will FDA employees be able to blow the whistle on dangerous drugs if they are intercepted by overzealous managers who found suspicious the employees' interest in historical whistleblower cases? Will Department of Transportation workers fear retaliation if they Google information about prior government failures to recall dangerous automobiles? Will off-hand comments about the progress of the Forever War lead to dismissals?

If Edward Snowden's fellow employees at Booz Allen Hamilton had been a little more suspicious of one another, and had reported Snowden for something before he leaked documents to the Guardian, would we be better off as a nation? Would we be a healthier society if government employees from the Post Office to NASA feared engaging in any political discourse, at the risk of losing their jobs?

Back in 1917, the US government told us we had to fear the influence of communism, and implemented authoritarian policies in what was supposedly an effort to preserve democracy. Nearly a hundred years later we appear to be making the same mistakes, with 'Terrorism' as the foil instead of the big Red Scare. 

The Obama administration tells us that Edward Snowden "aided the enemy" when he released information to the public about unconstitutional, massive government spying. Defenders of the administration say that Snowden gave secrets to China, threatening our security. But I find it hard to believe anything Snowden told them about US cyber war efforts came as a huge surprise. 

As Glenn Greenwald puts it:

Few people – likely including Snowden himself – would contest that his actions constitute some sort of breach of the law. He made his choice based on basic theories of civil disobedience: that those who control the law have become corrupt, that the law in this case (by concealing the actions of government officials in building this massive spying apparatus in secret) is a tool of injustice, and that he felt compelled to act in violation of it in order to expose these official bad acts and enable debate and reform.

But that's a far cry from charging Snowden, who just turned 30 yesterday, with multiple felonies under the Espionage Act that will send him to prison for decades if not life upon conviction. In what conceivable sense are Snowden's actions "espionage"? He could have – but chose not – sold the information he had to a foreign intelligence service for vast sums of money, or covertly passed it to one of America's enemies, or worked at the direction of a foreign government. That is espionage. He did none of those things.

Who is the enemy the Obama administration says Snowden is aiding? It’s hard to arrive at any other conclusion but this: the enemy is us.

Efforts like the Obama administration's "Insider Threat Program" are only further evidence amidst a mounting pile of it that the government will go to great lengths to conceal information about its illegal or unpopular actions. These efforts are chilling, but they come too late, because the world can see that the government has already thrown the baby out with the bath water. You can't protect democracy by trying to kill it. 

So who is the real Insider Threat?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.