President Barack Obama's initiative to catch government leakers before they have a chance to pose a threat to national security is based on profiling techniques that are unlikely to work, reports McClatchy Newspapers
after reviewing documents related to the program.
Obama launched what is known as the Insider Threat Program in October 2011 after Army Pvt. Bradley Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from a classified computer network and sent them to WikiLeaks.
Under the program, millions of federal employees and contractors are directed to watch out for "high-risk persons or behaviors" among co-workers. The order covers virtually every federal department and agency, including the Peace Corps, the Department of Education, and other agencies not directly involved in national security.
According to McClatchy, workers are asked to pay close attention to the lifestyles, attitudes, and behaviors of co-workers as a means of predicting whether they might do "harm to the United States."
Managers of special insider-threat offices have "regular, timely, and, if possible, electronic access" to employees' personnel, payroll, disciplinary, and personal contact files, as well as records of their use of classified and unclassified computer networks, travel reports, and financial disclosure forms.
"In past espionage cases, we find people saw things that may have helped identify a spy, but never reported it," Gen Barlow, a spokesman for the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, told McClatchy. "That is why the awareness effort of the program is to teach people not only what types of activity to report, but how to report it and why it is so important to report it."
But experts have questioned the use of such techniques, noting that trying to predict future acts through behavioral monitoring is unproven and could lead to illegal profiling and privacy violations.
McClatchy cited a 2008 National Research Council report on detecting terrorists that concluded, "There is no consensus in the relevant scientific community or on the committee regarding whether any behavioral surveillance or physiological monitoring techniques are ready for use at all."
"Doing something similar about predicting future leakers seems even more speculative," said Stephen Fienberg, a professor of statistics and social science at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of the committee that wrote the report.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, told McClatchy the program includes extra safeguards for "civil rights, civil liberties and privacy," adding that Manning's leaks showed that at the time, protections of classified materials were "inadequate and put our nation's security at risk."
Nevertheless, fast forward to the spring of 2013 and it is clear the new effort failed to prevent former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden from leaking classified information about the government's secret surveillance programs to The Guardian
and The Washington Post.
Some critics say the program could cause more harm than good.
"The answer is not to have a Stasi-like response," Eric Feldman, a former inspector general of the National Reconnaissance Office, told McClatchy, referring to the former East Germany's secret police.
"You've removed that firewall between employees seeking help and the threat that any employee who seeks help could be immediately retaliated against by this insider-threat office."
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