When will the US government stop persecuting whistleblowers? | Chelsea Manning | Opinion
The US government is heavily invested in an internal surveillance program that is unsustainable, ineffective, morally reprehensible, inherently dangerous and ultimately counterproductive.
In the months following the US government’s initial charges against me over the release of government records in 2010, the current administration formed the National Insider Threat Task Force under the authority of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and several other US government agencies.
The mission of this taskforce is breathtakingly broad. It aims at deterring threats to national security by anyone “who misuses or betrays, wittingly or unwittingly, his or her authorized access to any US Government resource”. Unfortunately, the methods it outlines amount to thousands of government personnel being effectively under total surveillance.
These kinds of operations usually result in doing more harm than good. As articulated by James Detert and Ethan Burris in a recent Harvard Business Review article, such training and surveillance programs greatly diminish productive and innovative capabilities within organizations. They have a tendency to “promote fear of embarrassment, isolation, low performance ratings, lost promotions, and even firing”. When your employer is the US government, that fear — of surveillance, public humiliation, warrants, arrest, trial, exorbitant legal fees and imprisonment — is orders of magnitude higher.
Flaws in the program exacerbate these problems. There is a reliance on “anonymous feedback” which can create endless witch-hunts, “general invitations” to report or file complaints through so-called open door policies, and vagueness about what feedback is expected. According to Deter and Burris, the program creates a perfect storm of conditions against innovation, creativity and whistleblowing.
The implementation of the Insider Threat program has shown predictably troubling results. For example, an ODNI webinar, entitled Simple Steps and Guidance to Secure Classified Networks, describes excessive surveillance protocols and invasive secret investigations by the US government and military into their own officials. In its early stages, it has become clear that this program conflates any attempt to seek redress, transparency or the promotion of legitimate public interests with grave threats to national security.
The program will have tangible effects on the lives of many officials. For instance, over the period of several years, a former senior government official, Thomas Drake, repeatedly attempted through many official and internal channels — including inspectors general and the US congressional intelligence committees — to prompt scrutiny of some questionable NSA programs. After getting nowhere, he finally communicated his unclassified concerns to a reporter. Drake was then investigated for nearly half a decade, and charged with violations under the broadly interpreted Espionage Act of 1917. In 2011 he pled guilty to a federal misdemeanor after accruing hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal defense fees.
However, the Insider Threat program wasn’t done with Drake, nor others like him. Late last year, the ODNI released internal training material that characterized Drake, and other government officials, as threats akin to the Fort Hood and Navy Yard mass shooters. When this revelation was made public, a letter from 22 civil liberties and press freedom organizations decried the government’s “wanton misuse of the term ‘threat’” and their failure to “understand the distinction between a whistleblower and a genuine threat”
As evidenced by a slideshow obtained in February 2016 through a Foia request, internal training material based on my own psychological profile and history — using male pronouns and my old name, despite it being legally changed in April 2014 — has been widely published and presented. The program alleges that I am “disgruntled” based on my perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, questioning my “self-image as a man” while acknowledging that “he [sic] wanted to be an openly accepted female”. It describes me as “an advocate for homosexuals openly serving” in the military, and my concern and advocacy of queer and trans rights as being expressed “obsessively”.
The broad sweep of the program means officials have been given a blank check for surveillance. Agencies implementing the Insider Threat program could examine anyone who has motives of “greed”, “financial difficulties”, is “disgruntled”, has “an ideology” a “divided loyalty”, an “ego” or “self-image”, or “any family/personal issues” — the words used to describe my motives. Such subjective labelling could easily be applied to virtually every single person currently holding a security clearance.
This lack of focus has already led to the program becoming industrialized. In an April 2015 report to the US House armed services committee, the US Department of Defense revealed the existence of “continuing evaluation” of 100,000 personnel on and off the job.
The Insider Threat program works against innovation, creativity and the prevention of institutional corruption. Perhaps this is the real intent of the intelligence community and the Insider Threat Task Force — to instill fear and project dominance throughout the intelligence community, the military, and among government employees and contractors at large.
Perhaps a better approach for the government would be to create a Transparency and Accountability Task Force, comprising different government agencies and departments, the inspectors general, the National Archives and Office of Government Information Services, and a committee or other body that can work directly with current and former government employees, service members, veterans and journalists.
Such a taskforce could focus on advocating for and protecting employees who have concerns. It would help to send a message to employees, military service members, contractors and department and agency heads that even if the official channels fail, those who raise concerns will still be protected, listened to and given the chance to speak out in a meaningful forum. It would encourage dissent. It would allow dirty laundry, drama and corruption to be aired out rather than allowed to fester.
We could all — citizens, the government and its employees — benefit from that.