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OMB Orders Government Agencies to Monitor Disgruntled Employees -- What's Next?

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By Linda Lewis and Coleen Rowley

As Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano recently admitted, the notion of "fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here" is so totally passé. (She didn't explain, of course why, if Bush's old rationale is no longer valid, we still keep the wars going on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq, etc.) Her statement, however, did underscore that a significant portion of the 854,000 intelligence operatives, analysts, agents, private contractors and consultants now operating in "Top Secret America" have already turned the "war on terror" inward, targeting their fellow Americans, no longer focusing just on Muslims and mosques but on infiltrating peace, environmental, civil liberties and social justice groups.

Even more ludicrously off-base, the White House and its paranoid Barney Fife bureaucrats have set their gun sights on the "insider threat" lurking within Top Secret America itself. Under the guise of sealing government from WikiLeaks, OMB Director Jacob J. Lew issued a memo on January 3 to all government agencies providing pages of suggested security procedures and checklists and also recommending "all agencies institute an insider threat detection awareness education and training program" to "gauge trustworthiness" of their government employees. Some of OMB's suggestions:

• Are you practicing "security sentinel" or "co-pilot" policing practices?
• What metrics do you use to measure "trustworthiness" without alienating employees?
• Do you use psychiatrist and sociologist to measure:
-Relative happiness as a means to gauge trustworthiness?
-Despondence and grumpiness as a means to gauge waning trustworthiness?

What's not new: the use and abuse of security clearances

Security clearance laws have long been used by federal agencies as an end run around laws that protect civil servants, whistleblowers, minorities and persons with disabilities from discrimination and reprisal. Individuals who exercise their rights under those laws frequently have become targets of reprisal that purposely seeks to create anxiety, pain and depression (conditions that also may accompany physical disabilities). The emotional trauma that employees experience may then be used as a pretext for requiring a psychiatric evaluation that may unfairly result in the loss of their clearance and subsequent termination for not having the clearance required by their position. Evaluators hired by the government may lack suitable qualifications and are themselves vulnerable to reprisal if they fail to provide the diagnosis desired by the agency.

It's difficult to see how a program that urges agencies to evaluate employees' "trustworthiness" based on their level of "happiness," "despondence," and "grumpiness" will not only have an adverse impact on whistleblowers, minorities and persons with disabilities but on the general workforce. Forcing psychiatric assessments of those employees will further stigmatize groups that already struggle for acceptance, and will destroy the careers of some of the nation's brightest and best public servants.

A good example of the counter-productiveness of the common tendency to shoot the messenger was the FBI Laboratory's attempted destruction of FBI Chemist Frederic Whitehurst in the mid-1990s for having the audacity to question why his FBI employer refused to seek proper scientific accreditation for an operation they simultaneously vaunted as the "foremost forensic lab" in the country. Whitehurst rocked the boat too when he challenged the cherished FBI tradition that higher-level FBI officials in the chain of command should not be re-writing any scientific reports of their (often better scientifically-qualified) underlings in order to better favor prosecutive goals. It took years but Whitehurst was eventually vindicated, the scientific testing/report writing was corrected and the FBI Lab ended up receiving proper accreditation, making its work product more credible. Hoover's old ways of operating the FBI lab now seem nutty, but this wasn't the case at the time of Whitehurst's challenges. Back then, Whitehurst was made to seem the disloyal nut. He was suspended, escorted from the FBI building and stripped of his gun and gold badge.

The impact of security clearance policies extends far beyond agencies like the FBI and CIA. Since the 9/11 attacks, agencies with regulatory functions--the Food Safety and Inspection Agency (FSIS), for example--have issued increasing numbers of security clearances, whether the position involves homeland security or meat inspection.

The OMB memo does not describe what happens when an employee has been labeled an "insider threat" for failing the happiness test. Does the agency pull the employee's clearance on such thin evidence? The Executive Order that provides guidance for adjudication of security clearances does not mention a requisite number of smiles. Or, will the employee be jailed without due process, as the government now does with those it deems outsider threats? Perhaps "Positive Psychology" Guru Martin Seligman (nicknamed "Dr. Happy") will be able to sell a civilian form of his $125 million "Comprehensive Soldier Fitness" (CSF) "holistic testing" and "learned optimism-resiliency" training to the rest of the US Government. What kind of government will we have when all this pixie dust has settled? Will we have a diverse and creative workforce, courageously challenging complacency and corruption? Or will we have a Stepford workforce where smiling obedience is the only skill that matters?

Is OMB's guidance supported by psychology?

Here's the considered opinion of Donald Soeken, LCSW-C, Ph.D. retired 06 Captain, U.S. Public Health Service, and Director, Whistleblower Support Center and Archive. His testimony on misuse of psychiatric exams led Congress to ban them in 1984.

Since January 1984 the government-forced psychiatric fitness for duty exam is not even legal to use as a tool to evaluate the mental health of most federal employees. For individuals with security clearances, the government still uses the exam. The basic problem is not the exam itself, but that it is unethical to use it when an individual is being forced to take the exam.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, and social workers who perform the exam are committing malpractice because their ethics code requires them to "do no harm." The doctor-patient relationship does apply when a government employee talks to a psychological evaluator and it is unethical to perform such an exam if the information is later divulged without the release of information. If the information is released, the personnel office of the agency can then use the exam in any way that they are being told to use it.

In my experience, the forced exam is usually given to persons who are whistleblowers, have a personality clash with their manager, or anyone else that management determines is a problem. Anyone required to take such an exam should refuse with their lawyer's intervention. If all attempts to stop the exam fail, then the employee should have his/her lawyer or a licensed psychotherapist present at the exam. In the exams that I have attended, I have informed the evaluator that he or she is committing malpractice and most then do not complete the exam.

These exams are like the old Soviet style psychiatry and all past congressional hearings since 1978 have found them to be of little value and have indicated they should not be performed on government employees. One psychologist who worked at NSA told me that the exams can not determine who is a potential government spy. Other methods are more effective for that purpose whereas the forced psychiatrist fitness for duty exam is of no value in determining who might give information to a foreign government. I concur. Such exams would be of no utility in determining who might go to the press to expose waste, fraud, or abuse of power. These exams are permanently harmful to the mental health of the individuals who take them.

Do Grumpy or Despondent Workers Even Become Spies?

How nonsensical is it to try to zero in on "grumpy" workers in the government's massive national security apparatus as the new "insider threat"? Even when so many in the Post Office were "going postal," OMB didn't lose its mind and grasp at straws like this. The MSNBC article that broke the story quoted Steven Aftergood, a national security specialist for the Federation of American Scientists, as saying, "This is paranoia, not security." Aftergood also questioned whether the guidance in the OMB memo--based as it is on programs commonly used at the CIA and other intelligence agencies to root out potential spies--would work at other agencies.

What Aftergood didn't say was that the CIA and FBI were dismal failures in detecting their own top level spies during the prior three decades. For instance, CIA official Aldrich Ames spied for the Soviet Union with impunity from 1985 to 1993--he even passed two CIA polygraphs. CIA Chief of Station Harold James Nicholson was eventually tripped up when he failed a polygraph but is believed to have acted as a Soviet-Russian spy from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Incredibly enough, only a few months ago, CIA spy Nicholson was convicted a second time for operating his son as a Russian agent to collect the "pension" he was due for his prior spywork for the Russians. FBI Supervisor Earl Edwin Pitts conveyed classified documents and "everything else he was aware of" to the Russians from 1987 to 1992. Finally, there is the broadly smiling example of GS 15 FBI Unit Chief Official Robert Hanssen, who spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence services against the United States for 22 years from 1979 to 2001. Hanssen, a fervent Catholic, extensively involved in Opus Dei, would have undoubtedly aced the military's new "spiritual fitness" portion of its new CSF test. He was seen as so apple pie and in tune with the FBI mission that he was given the task of looking for the spies in the FBI. That meant he was assigned to look for himself. (For obvious reasons, Hanssen ensured that he did not unmask himself, but instead turned over the entire study, including the list of all Soviets who had contacted the FBI about FBI moles, to the KGB in 1988.) The happily self-enriching Hanssen enjoyed a perfectly unfettered, successful spy career spanning three decades despite the factually-based complaints made about him by other FBI officials, including his own brother-in-law.

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CIA Officer Aldrich Ames spied for the Soviets-Russians from 1985 -1993.

2011-01-08-spiesjimnicholsonsm.jpeg

CIA Officer Harold James NIcholson spied from mid-80's to 90's and a second time from prison in 2009.

2011-01-08-spiesearlpitts.jpg

FBI Agent Earl Edwin Pitts gave classified documents to the Russians from 1987 to 1992.

2011-01-08-Spiesroberthanssen.jpg

FBI Unit Chief Robert Hanssen spied for the Soviets/Russians from 1979 to 2001.

So just examining these famous case histories--but of course limited to these four who were eventually exposed (and my personal opinion is there must exist many more who were never found out)--the FBI and CIA were anything but effective in "rooting out" their insider threats during the decades these four were making money off the Soviets! More importantly and counter to OMB's simplistic advice, the FBI's and CIA's own traitor-spies did not, by all accounts, appear to be anything but well adjusted, spiritually fit and as happy as one can be with a government job!

Albeit they all shared certain money-hungry, capitalistic tendencies. And Ames had an exceptionally bad drinking problem. But OMB knows if it was to put alcoholism down as one of its "insider threat" warning signs, the false positives in Washington DC alone could decimate the US government. Just looking at their photos, however, OMB would have a hard time seeing the grumpy, despondent traitor who lurked behind the smiling faces with one notable exception, the rather glum Pitts (who everyone acknowledged was weird in just quietly doing his job and keeping to himself). But even Pitts ostensibly enjoyed a happy marriage to a female FBI agent--an early form of the "co-pilot policing" mentioned in the OMB memo?!

Banishing grumpiness could be Mission Impossible

So outing all the grumpy government workers is not going to be easy! But OMB has set its sights not only on current employees but all prospective government employees, like the college kids majoring in political science, history, law or international relations. Our bureaucrats want to find ways of detecting those unduly curious college kids who may already have peeked at WikiLeaks. WikiLeak peekers and critical thinkers undoubtedly would pose some questions about (if not an actual "insider threat" to) the massively expansive and expensive national security apparatus and government hierarchies that rely on blind obedience.

Even worse, OMB says agencies should monitor their retirees, too! As most recipients of government pensions are well aware, any number of creative pretexts are constantly bandied about to reduce the funding that goes into government pensions. So that part of Lew's Memo mentioning retirees like ourselves who might have seen a WikiLeak or two caught our attention. As people who depend on our little government pensions, we admit to nothing but how many government retirees have found it hard to immediately press "delete" whenever a mention of WikiLeaks has come up in Google News or while channel surfing these last few months?!

To be sure, a real issue may exist as to the top level elite government "retirees," the three or four star generals and above and the "Senior Executive Service" high level "retirees" who simply go through revolving doors from government "public service" to privatized national security corporations. News articles report that it only takes these head honchos one hour after public "retirement" to pick up their new private jobs, albeit at several times the pay-grade, doing the same thing. Those "retirees" never lose their security clearances or any access to their top secret info, so the Lew Memo security provisions should logically apply to that type of "retiree." Instead we worry Lew (himself in the high level revolving door category) is probably siccing his dogs on real retirees like ourselves who did indeed sever all of our prior agency ties and did give up our classified access but still sometimes feel compelled to write a letter to the editor and/or an opinion piece to try and engage more of our fellow citizens about the problems of the day. Are we going to be lumped into the new "insider threat"?! Is Lew threatening real government retirees with losing our pensions if we publish our opinions in support of WikiLeaks and more transparency in government?

What's the answer? Will OMB call on Martin "Dr. Happy" Seligman to expand his testing and "learned optimism" training?

Adhering to these pages of new paranoid-driven security procedures and instituting wide-spread monitoring of government employees, students and retirees, just because some Washington DC officials got embarrassed by WikiLeaks, is likely to quickly prove a big drag in more ways than one. The massive internal searching and monitoring will undoubtedly bring morale down the very first time a good Homeland Security Warrior is stopped and gets his lunch pail searched on his or her way out the door after the bell rings for the day. Even the most loyal of the "us" in "us versus them" may come to see how the tables have been turned. That is apt to produce even more grumpiness!

The potentially demoralizing situation that awaits the civilian government agencies is therefore ripe for the pop psychology answer: the "power of positive thinking." Already the US Military has given Seligman's "Soldier Fitness Tracker and Global Assessment Tool", which purports to measure soldiers' "resilience" in five core areas: emotional, physical, family, social and spiritual. Soldiers fill out an online survey made up of more than 100 questions, and if the results fall into a red area, they are required to participate in remedial courses in a classroom or online setting to strengthen their "resilience" in the disciplines in which they received low scores. More than 800,000 Army soldiers have already served as guinea pigs, having taken the CSF "test" thus far and the Military has successfully inculcated 2,000 "Master Resiliency Trainers." So it's not a stretch to predict expansion of Dr. Happy's pop psychology onto the civilian side of government. This screening might even eventually be used to root out the more independent thinkers in the US population as a whole.

Seligman's earlier findings on how easy it is to instill "learned helplessness" may end up combining with his newer beliefs on instilling "learned optimism." Whether it turns out that easy to evaluate and manipulate people's emotions, we doubt the OMB guidance or any pop psychology would have deterred true insider threats like Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, or any of the other national security agent spies. Given the underlying ills, it remains to be seen whether such costly therapy can somehow alleviate PTSD, reduce soldiers' suicides, prevent grumpiness in Government employees and/or keep whistleblowers from trying to reveal wrongdoing.

Linda Lewis worked for thirteen years for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a planner and analyst specializing in weapons of mass destruction before retiring in 2005.

Coleen Rowley, a FBI special agent for almost 24 years, was legal counsel to the FBI Field Office in Minneapolis from 1990 to 2003. She wrote a "whistleblower" memo in May 2002 and testified to the Senate Judiciary on some of the FBI's pre 9-11 failures. She retired at the end of 2004, and now writes and speaks on ethical decision-making and balancing civil liberties with the need for effective investigation.

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