Published June 21, 2013
“[C]ertain life experiences... stress, divorce, financial problems… frustrations with co-workers or the organization.”
-- Warning signs for Department of Education employees to observe in their fellow workers and report to superiors as part of the Obama administration’s “Insider Threat” initiative aimed at stopping leaks. The internal document was obtained by McClatchy Newspapers.
President Obama will have his first-ever meeting today with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a Bush-era panel created by Congress to address concerns about abuses in domestic surveillance.
The board doesn’t have any direct power, but was created to advise presidents on civil liberties concerns and provide some oversight on domestic spy operations. In five years, the board got no time with Obama. But the president, badly stung by the revelation of his massive expansion of data mining programs targeting American citizens, is looking to reassure anxious voters across the political spectrum that these programs aren’t being abused.
That task will be tougher on the left today as Obama announces the nomination of James Comey to be the new director of the FBI. Comey, once a top aide to former Attorney General John Ashcroft, was part of crafting the very surveillance programs liberals loathe. Obama, who formerly denounced such surveillance, has now not only broadly expanded the programs, but also wants to put a former Bush insider atop the most powerful federal police force.
Further, a new report shows the administration is enlisting rank-and-file federal workers in the effort to plug leaks, urging them to blow the whistle on whistle-blowers -- which could rub lawmakers, not to mention the federal workforce, the wrong way.
Conservatives, meanwhile, remain highly agitated about potential abuses inside the Obama domestic spying programs. Edward Snowden, a former computer technician for a government contractor who revealed the scope of the Obama-era programs, has sparked widespread anxieties about other abuses of the system, especially for blackmail, espionage or political aims.
Dovetailing with those concerns today is the report in The Washington Examiner that the top aide to former IRS Director Douglas Shulman appears some 300 times in White House visitor logs.
Shulman, who ran the agency when the targeting of conservative groups opposed to Obama’s agenda began, has been under scrutiny for making dozens of visits to the White House campus, considered a breach for the head of a semi-independent agency with a past history of political abuses.
Shulman and Obama officials have dismissed the visits as either innocuous social calls or necessary to help craft new tax rules aimed at penalizing those who fail to purchase health insurance and other Obama initiatives. But his chief of staff, says The Examiner, isn’t a tax expert, but was more of a political aide whose policy focus was on updating the agency’s technology. What was he doing spending all that time with Democratic political appointees next door to the White House?
Given that the first major act by Obama’s new IRS boss, a former White House political appointee himself, was to award $70 million in bonuses to employees of the scandal-soaked agency, Republicans are increasingly alarmed about a lack of consequences and accountability at the IRS. As we learn more about past coziness between the agency and the political insiders at the administration, those worries will only deepen.
Obama’s message today is that while the lines may have gotten blurry for one law-enforcement agency, for that is what the IRS is, hence its semi-autonomy, it won’t happen at the FBI or the National Security Agency. While the tax collectors may have abused their broad powers, that won’t be happening with the drone-equipped FBI or the NSA tracking more than a billion phone calls a day.
The message for Republicans: I’ve learned my lesson and now embrace the Bush approach to counter-terrorism in the person of James Comey. The message to Democrats: I care about civil liberties enough to meet with a mostly irrelevant group of appointees and let them vent about Big Brother.
(That one won’t likely be helped by the revelation in today’s New York Times that the NSA employs Facebook’s former security boss and keeps close ties with other Silicon Valley firms that are political patrons and partners with the Obama political operation.)
But as Obama seeks to manufacture some consent for his programs, there’s a new tremor rippling through Washington today: Insider Threat.
McClatchy Newspapers revealed today the existence of a program that aims to take “loose lips sink ships” well beyond the national security universe, telling workers at the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration and the Education and Agriculture departments to keep tabs on their co-workers.
The program tells workers to watch their colleagues for erratic behavior or signs of stress beyond the workplace and inform supervisors of their suspicions. The aim is to guard against leaks, espionage and data theft. To do so, the aim is to turn the millions of government workers into the eyes and ears of the Obama anti-leak initiative.
As the guidelines for the Pentagon under the program, obtained by McClatchy, reveal there will be consequences for those who don’t report misconduct or even precursor behaviors that might indicate a chance for future misconduct. The Department of Defense will, “Penalize clearly identifiable failures to report security infractions and violations, including any lack of self-reporting.”
That may be good if aimed at somebody about to take a suitcase of rubles in exchange for the passwords at NORAD, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration? The Department of Agriculture? Workers at those agencies take online tutorials entitled “Treason 101.” Can the people who fund arugula stands at subsidized farmers markets really commit treason? Does the Peace Corps have secrets to reveal about irrigation ditches?
The real reason for this campaign say watchdogs on the left is to stop whistleblowing before it starts and to make sure workers know they are always being watched. They also expressed concern that the definitions of possible threats are so broad as to invite easy abuse from political appointees or higher-ups looking to neutralize troublesome employees or dissenters.
If the very expression of frustration with co-workers is a potential precursor of treasonous behavior, good luck getting workers to offer their ideas for reform or even call attention to existing abuses. Insider Threat opens up some very unhappy possibilities about silencing dissent when it comes to abusing the public.
For an administration that went out of bounds at the highest levels trying to punish leaks – a dragnet at the nation’s largest wire service and naming FOX News colleague James Rosen as a possible criminal co-conspirator for wooing a source – Insider Threat is even more troubling.
Obama’s obsession with secrecy and the prevention of leaks makes Americans uncomfortable and having built this secret world (including the still-unknown number of off-the-books email accounts for political appointees) will make it harder for him to regain the public trust. He wanted to prevent leaks that undercut public confidence, but the cure looks worse than the disease.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.