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Coleen Rowley

Coleen Rowley

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

Posted: 01/10/11 12:42 PM ET

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 (She didn't explain, of course why, if Bush's old rationale is no longer valid, we still keep the wars going on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq, etc.)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?