Obama's 'Insider Threat Program': A Parody of Liberal Faith in Bureaucrats

The laughable plan: train millions of federal workers to psychologically profile all their coworkers
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People who criticize liberals frequently accuse them of having a naive faith in the ability of the federal bureaucracy and its workers to effectively understand and implement the complicated designs that policy intellectuals draw up on paper, often without any conception of how reality actually works.

That critique often isn't fair.

But President Obama's recent effort to stem leaks in the federal workforce doesn't just exemplify such cluelessness. It verges on being a parody of it. If I were writing a satirical story about statist credulousness, I'd hesitate to describe the Insider Threat Program. It doesn't seem believable. McClatchy has details in a story published Tuesday:

In an initiative aimed at rooting out future leakers and other security violators, President Barack Obama has ordered federal employees to report suspicious actions of their colleagues based on behavioral profiling techniques that are not scientifically proven to work, according to experts and government documents.

The techniques are a key pillar of the Insider Threat Program, an unprecedented government-wide crackdown under which millions of federal bureaucrats and contractors must watch out for "high-risk persons or behaviors" among co-workers. Those who fail to report them could face penalties, including criminal charges.


Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/07/09/196211/linchpin-for-obamas-plan-to-predict.html#.Udx9klOcq_C#storylink=cpy

I don't want to traffic in negative stereotypes about federal workers, many of whom are perfectly smart and competent. Suffice it to say that having observed large organizations in the public and private sectors, any group that employs millions of people has a frighteningly large contingent that lacks common sense, especially when forced to make high-pressure judgments that demand a lot of discretion. How can any president fail to understand that basic truth?

Let's look at more details:

Under the program, which is being implemented with little public attention, security investigations can be launched when government employees showing "indicators of insider threat behavior" are reported by co-workers, according to previously undisclosed administration documents obtained by McClatchy. Investigations also can be triggered when "suspicious user behavior" is detected by computer network monitoring and reported to "insider threat personnel."

Federal employees and contractors are asked to pay particular attention to the lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors - like financial troubles, odd working hours or unexplained travel - of co-workers as a way to predict whether they might do "harm to the United States."

You've got to marvel at the implicit premises: on one hand, the belief that there are enough subversives in the federal workforce to justify adding a significant analytic task to the job description of millions of employees; on the other hand, a belief that the subversives won't themselves gum up the works by suggesting that certain colleagues ought to be watched more closely.

And apparently, the initiative fails even as straight up wonkish central planning:

... even the government's top scientific advisers have questioned these techniques. Those experts say that trying to predict future acts through behavioral monitoring is unproven and could result in illegal ethnic and racial profiling and privacy violations.

"There is no consensus in the relevant scientific community nor on the committee regarding whether any behavioral surveillance or physiological monitoring techniques are ready for use at all," concluded a 2008 National Research Council report on detecting terrorists.

Or does it fail? Maybe the National Research Council is secretly in cahoots with the subversives! Let's scrutinize it's employees. What should we look for? 

Although agencies and departments are still setting up their programs, some employees already are being urged to watch co-workers for 'indicators' that include stress, divorce and financial problems.

Oh God, the conspiracy may go even higher than I thought. Has anyone else noticed that since taking office Barack Obama has seemed a lot more stressed than he used to? And isn't Justice Sotomayor divorced? Come to think of it, hasn't she been making suspicious statements in defense of privacy lately? Oh well, I'm sure that the same federal government whose highly trained police force persecuted the wrong people for the Atlanta Olympic bombing and the 2001 anthrax attacks won't ever persecute the wrong employees when countless bureaucrats are casting suspicions. Why wouldn't brief training sessions and the threat of prosecution for under-reporting prepare bureaucrats to psychologically profile all their coworkers? 

It's just a matter of showing them how.

Rest easy, America. Before, federal bureaucrats weren't focusing on the marital status of their coworkers. Now they've been instructed to monitor all of them constantly. What could possibly go wrong?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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