Human Rights

Bombshell: Government’s 'Insider Threat Program' Obligates Federal Workers to Spy on Their Colleagues

McClatchy newspaper group tells the story that mainstream media ignores

Photo Credit: Brian A Jackson/

Once again, the McClatchy company is doing mainstream media’s heavy lifting, exposing the secrets of an increasingly hidden government. In 2003, it was McClatchy alone among the major media groups that questioned the government’s certain claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

On Thursday, the same reporters  involved in the Iraq truth-telling a decade ago exposed the existence of the Obama administration’s program that obligates government workers to spy on their colleagues or face punishment, dismissal, and possibly criminal charges. The Insider Threat Program targets not only national security departments and agencies but most federal bureacracies from the Peace Corps to the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture Departments.

And it’s clear that not only the  disclosure of classified information  constitutes an “internal threat”  and act of espionage, but leaks to the media as well.  “Leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” according to a June 1 Department of Defense planning document for the program, leaked to McClatchy.

The  White House launched the Insider Threat Program’s in October 2011 as it still reeled from the Wikileaks disclosures of hundreds of thousands of documents thought to have been downloaded from classified networks by Private Bradley Manning the year before. The program is evolving, agency to agency, in response to the President’s broad guidelines.  Documents provided by the McClatchy investigation show the varied approaches to the executive mandate. At the DoD, McClatchy reports,  the policy is “zero tolerance”: “Employees must turn themselves and others in for failing to report breaches.”  But it’s the suspicion of potential breaches that must be reported. requiring co-workers to monitor colleagues’ work and lives.   Profiling is encouraged: A co-worker facing a divorce or financial problems is to be watched carefully one training memo states, as these are “indicators” of  an inclination toward espionage.  An extensive Army training document offers hundreds of suspicious behaviors that federal workers must report including working hard and independently: ”repeatedly performing non required work outside of normal duty hours, especially if unaccompanied."

At the Department of Agriculture, “Treason 101” offers an online tutorial in the basics of spying and the Inside Espionage Threat. 
The two-year-old program is now expected to be revved up in the wake of   Edward Snowden’s explosive revelation of the National Security Agency’s  telephone and internet data collection programs. But according to internal security experts and former government officials that the McClatchy team interviewed, the Insider Threat Program will have “grave consequences for the public’s right to know.” It could make it easier for the government to inhibit exposure of unclassified information and illegal programs and thwart legitimate whistleblowing. The program will be used to quell different perspectives, which in the end can hurt national security, they fear. Fearfulness and group think contributed to the prevailing and erroneous CIA judgment that Iraq indeed had weapons of mass destruction,  warranting invasion.

Again, it was the McClatchy group that distinguished itself among mainstream media for questioning the  veracity of the claims used to justify the 2003 invasion and occupation. And, again,  as the government takes aim at its own citizens as internal threats, it is McClatchy, among the large newspapers and newspaper groups, that keeps the facts coming.

Nora Eisenberg's work has appeared in the Village Voice, Tikkun, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and the Guardian UK. Her most recent novel, "When You Come Home" (Curbstone, 2009), explores the legacy of the 1991 Gulf War.
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