'Insider threat'? Program urging federal workers to tattle on each other raises concerns

Amid the furor in Washington over government leaks and media exposés, a little-known executive order signed by President Obama in October of 2011 could fuel the paranoia.

It requires government agencies to "implement an insider threat detection and prevention program" -- in effect, ordering all government employees, regardless of security clearances or the sensitivity of their work, to police fellow workers as potential security threats, and report the suspicious behavior to superiors.

Asked Monday about the executive order, as first reported by McClatchy Newspapers, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said: "I confess I didn't see the story. I'll have to take the question."

The edict applies to all government agencies, even those with no involvement in national security matters such as the Peace Corps and the Department of Education.

As an example of the order's broad sweep, a Department of Education security systems webinar describes how, "certain life experiences can alter a person's normal behavior and cause them to act illegally or irresponsibly."

It points to "stress, divorce, untreated mental illness, financial problems, frustrations with co-workers or the organization" as warning signs that must be reported.

Mark Zaid, an attorney who has represented government whistle-blowers accused of wrongdoing, said the program may lead some ethical workers with constructive suggestions to do the wrong thing.

"It's hitting a small problem, although a significant one, with sledgehammer," he said.

"There is a psychological component to it -- that they are actually pushed in the wrong direction toward being more of an insider threat," he said. "I've seen over the years where I've had intelligence clients say to me in frustration that, "You know, 'why don't I just walk over to the Russian Embassy and just sell the information'."

Some advocates for transparency, including the new FBI Director nominee James Comey, believe workers need more freedom to air grievances, not less.

Comey expressed that sentiment in a promotional video for one of his recent employers, Bridgewater Securities. In the video, Comey claimed to have been attracted to the company, because of its philosophy of openness. -- a stark contrast to his experience in the federal government where he was once as assistant attorney general during the George W. Bush administration. "I had sat in the White House situation room, in meetings chaired by the president, where I could tell from the body language of people around the table that they had things to say and couldn't say them," he said.

The Obama administration's crackdown on leaks has already had a chilling effect on the flow of news. In an appearance at the National Press Club last week, Associated Press boss Gary Pruitt said, "Some of our longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking to us, even on stories that aren't about national security."

Pruitt, whose organization's phones records were seized by the Department of Justice in a leak probe, added, "Government employees that we once checked in with regularly will no longer speak to us by phone."

Zaid said a larger problem is that most government agencies have no place where workers with legitimate grievances can go within the organization, without fear of being branded a malcontent -- or worse, a potential national security threat.