Federal Employees and the ‘Insider Threat’ to National Security

An executive order on controlling the “Insider threat to national security” was not well received by FedSmith.com users as most thought the order would not improve national security.

Articles about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, national security, the recent public exposure of how programs run by NSA to collect data on Americans, and actions taken by the Department of Justice with regard to individual reporters and more extensive actions to restrict “whistleblowers”  have created a heightened awareness about the role of government and personal privacy.

Amid all the current furor, an Executive Order issued by President Obama in 2011 without significant publicity has recently been the subject of numerous articles in the media.  This executive order could have particular importance to federal employees. Executive Order 13587 is entitled “Structural Reforms to Improve the Security of Classified Networks and the Responsible Sharing and Safeguarding of Classified Information.”

The document requires government agencies to “implement an insider threat detection and prevention program.” The purpose of the “Insider Threat Task Force” is  “deterring, detecting, and mitigating insider threats, including the safeguarding of classified information from exploitation, compromise, or other unauthorized disclosure taking into account risk levels, as well as the distinct needs, missions, and systems of individual agencies.”

The order dictates the responsibilities of the task force and states that the “Director of National Intelligence, after consultation with the heads of affected agencies, may issue such policy directives and guidance as the Director of National Intelligence deems necessary to implement this order.”

The news report that appears to have first reported the existence of this Executive Order after the Snowden affair erupted focuses on the potential impact of the Order. It reads: “[T]he Obama administration was pressing a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report their suspicions” and that the Executive Order is “sweeping in its reach” and “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.”

The article also highlights that “The Obama administration already was pursuing an unprecedented number of leak prosecutions, and some in Congress – long one of the most prolific spillers of secrets – favor tightening restrictions on reporters’ access to federal agencies, making many U.S. officials reluctant to even disclose unclassified matters to the public.”

The article focuses largely on how agencies have interpreted and applied the Executive Order as much as the Order itself. “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” and cites guidance issued by various agencies including the Department of Defense, and Departments of Agriculture and Education.

Readers should note that the Executive Order states that: “The entities created and the activities directed by this order shall not seek to deter, detect, or mitigate disclosures of information by Government employees or contractors that are lawful under and protected by the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998, Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, Inspector General Act of 1978, or similar statutes, regulations, or policies.”

Response of Readers to “Insider Threat” Program

We recently asked FedSmith.com users for feedback on this program. Most respondents indicated they are generally unimpressed with the idea.

Readers who responded to our recent survey did not know if the program had been implemented in their agency. In response to the question “Is this program being implemented in your agency,” only 7.7% said that the program was being implemented.

Yes 7.7%
No 32.0%
Not sure 60.3%

Most readers said they would not voluntarily participate in the program. 34.3% said they would voluntarily participate. 65.7% said they would not participate.

In response to the question: “Do you think this approach will improve the security of the country?” a similar percentage said it would not improve national security. 62.9% said it would not improve national security; 16.8% thought it would improve national security and 20.3% were not certain.

And “Will your attitude toward your colleagues be altered if this approach is followed in your agency?” delivered these results:

Yes 54.8%
No 45.2%

Our thanks to the readers who took the time to participate in this survey. Feel free to share any additional thoughts about this program in the comments below.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47