White House 'Insider Threat' program reportedly equates whistleblowing with spying

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The Obama administration has taken a hard line on secrecy and internal security, aggressively prosecuting leakers and using surveillance programs to uncover journalists' anonymous sources. And according to the McClatchy news agency, a program aimed at preventing leaks could be discouraging whistleblowing by equating it with treason. McClatchy has apparently reviewed documents for the administration-wide Insider Threat Program, which was created in 2011 after Bradley Manning released classified cables to WikiLeaks.

The program is meant to make it easier for agencies to prevent employees from leaking information, asking them to evaluate workers' trustworthiness and set severe penalties for intentionally breaking security protocol or failing to report a breach. But it also supposedly leaves the actual definition of a threat broad, meaning that almost anything could fall under the program's jurisdiction. While the administration has attempted to make it easier for would-be whistleblowers to report problems through internal channels, McClatchy says a Defense Department document describes any kind of security breach as a kind of espionage. "Hammer this fact home," it apparently says, "leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States."

"Are they cheery? Are they looking at Salon.com or The Onion during their lunch break?"

The program also directs agencies to monitor their employees, which is standard practice in any high-security area. Frequently, that means watching for high-risk indicators like financial or marital problems, which can provide leverage for blackmailers or foreign intelligence agencies. But some non-intelligence agencies apparently encourage employees to watch each other for potential risk factors, which could fuel mistrust — especially since these factors can be something as innocuous as working at unusual hours.

At worst, it can mean telling employees to be suspicious of anyone who doesn't seem happy enough. "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," complained an anonymous Pentagon official.

The Obama administration has been public about the need for tracking insider threats, and we've known for years that there's a fine line between looking for spies and cracking down on "disgruntled" but trustworthy employees. President Obama and other officials have also been open about the fact that they consider even principled leaking treasonous. These revelations about the Insider Threat Program underscore this, while making it clear that we'll likely see even bigger crackdowns in the wake of Edward Snowden's attempt to evade prosecution for espionage.

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