Thousands of Americans had their personal data passed on to US agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency, Internal Revenue Service and National Security Agency as part of an effort to uncover “untrustworthy federal workers,” according to a new report from McClatchy Newspapers.
The report from Marisa Taylor describes the creation of an “unprecedented” list of Americans that was disseminated widely with ease when there was no clear reason for sharing this data at all.
According to Taylor, two men are under criminal investigation for “purportedly teaching people how to pass lie detector tests.” The government sought to uncover information on government employees, who may have been using polygraph-beating techniques (which are unproven to work), while trying to obtain their security clearances. The result was “4,904 people—along with many of their Social Security numbers, addresses and professions – to nearly 30 federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.”
“Nurses, firefighters, police officers and private attorneys” all had their personal information handed over. Additionally, a “psychologist, a cancer researcher, and employees of Rite Aid, Paramount Pictures, the American Red Cross and Georgetown University” all had their data shared.
Most of the individuals had never received any one-on-one training from “one of the men being investigated.” They had bought his books or DVDs. The reason for training, in some cases, was also to find out if their spouses had been unfaithful. However, federal agencies passed on the data of thousands of Americans, which they intended to keep in case one of those individuals applied for a job with the agency in the future.
One lawyer, whose husband’s name ended up on the list, told McClatchy, “It’s very alarming and McCarthy-esque in its zeal. To put a person on a secret list because they bought the ‘wrong book’ or are associated with someone who did is overly paranoid.”
It represents a clear violation of privacy because data of people who are not government employees was shared, but, according to Taylor, “the Pentagon’s inspector general, which also was involved in the database check, allows for the sharing of personal information of people who aren’t Defense Department employees ‘when their activities have directly threatened the functions, property or personnel of the Department of Defense.’” That clearly indicates that the government consider people who buy books on how to beat lie detector tests, whether they provide details on reliable techniques or not, to be threats.
This “McCarthy-esque” activity by agencies is representative of how the government is choosing to uncover future leakers or whistleblowers in agencies. As McClatchy has taken the time to uncover and detail, President Barack Obama’s administration has launched an “insider threat” program that encourages snitching among government employees and creates a work environment where managers can be punished if they fail to report “suspicious activity.”
The program equates “leaks” with “espionage.” It instructs employees to be on the look out for individuals suffering from “narcissism” or “antisocial personality disorder.” They are to be on the lookout for “disgruntlement with one’s employer or the US government” that might be “strong enough to make the individual desire revenge.” They are to be sensitive to any statements that suggest “potential conflicting loyalties that may affect handling of classified or protected information.”
Employees are given training where they are informed they may even be rewarded up to a half million dollars for any information that “helps stop a case of espionage.” As a Defense Security Service pamphlet instructs, “It is better to have reported overzealously than never to have reported at all.” There are no penalties for informing on someone, if that tip is completely unfounded or found to be submitted for disingenuous purposes.” There are also no penalties for someone who reports that someone may be engaged in espionage if that information is given in “good faith.”
One former CIA case officer warned that the “insider threat” program, put in place after Private Chelsea Manning’s disclosures to WikiLeaks, could lead to a “bland common denominator working in the government.” Ilana Greenstein, “who says she quit the agency after being falsely accused of being a security risk,” told McClatchy, “You don’t get people speaking up when there’s wrongdoing. You don’t get people who look at things in a different way and who are willing to stand up for things. What you get are people who toe the party line, and that’s really dangerous for national security.”
Profiles for “disgruntled employees” or “insider threats” could be used to target whistleblowers—but perhaps that is acceptable to the leadership of these agencies.
The “McCarthy-esque” pursuit of individuals who might use polygraph-beating techniques also represents an attack on First Amendment rights. Doug Williams, who is a former Oklahoma City police polygrapher, is one of the people under federal criminal investigation, who has taught people how to beat lie detector tests.
Williams has been advertising that he can teach people how to beat lie detector tests for “three decades.” He has “railed against the use of polygraph testing,” according to McClatchy, and testified in hearing before Congress in 1988 that eventually led to ban against most private employers using lie detector tests.
Polygraph exams seem to be increasingly viewed as a weapon of choice in the war to control information in government agencies. Customs and Border Protection official John Schwartz considers individuals like Williams to be “pests,” who need to be removed from society. Schwartz believes those who “protest the loudest and the longest” against polygraph exams “are the ones that I believe we need to focus our attention on.”
The perceived value of polygraph exams in securing agencies from “insider threats,” which includes “employees who might become spies, leak to the news media, commit crimes or become corrupted in some way,” is undermined by the fact that people like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden did not use these techniques to obtain a security clearance.
The government does not and cannot predict who will be motivated by their conscience to release information that may be in the public interest. They also cannot guarantee that they will be able to predict which individuals will decide they can personally benefit from selling information. What that means is the government will engage in counter-subversive measures that involve the violating the privacy of Americans and targeting Americans’ First Amendment rights as leaders find the security of agencies takes priority over anyone’s supposed rights or civil liberties.