EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 21, 2013

Column: Obama now shows distrust for his own employees

Taylor Armerding
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Return with us once again to the continuing adventures of the Obama Transparency Files: Chapter Whatever.

I’ve said it before but, sadly, it needs regular repetition: Remember when Barack Obama was running for president and promised that his would be “the most transparent administration in history”?

He was just kidding – at least about himself. His administration, minimally open from the start, gets more and more opaque every day. Meanwhile, its focus to make its “subjects” – you, the allegedly “free” citizens – more transparent to the government, continues to expand.

It has reached the point where the Dear Leader is demanding the help of federal employees, urging them to spy on one another to prevent any of the wrong kind of government transparency.

Remember, this is not about all leaks. The administration is fine with leaks that it orchestrates to favored reporters that will generate stories that reflect well on the president and his agenda. But those that are not so flattering? Those must be stopped. And the loyal servants of the administration must join in the Great Struggle to stop them.

You may not have heard about it, since the story by the McClatchy news service broke more than a week ago, and it was drowned out by more news about Edward Snowden, the self-described whistleblower on National Security Agency surveillance of U.S. citizens.

But the two are closely related. Snowden was an “insider” – even though he worked for a private contractor, he had access to highly classified government documents. And the president has been seeking to enlist federal workers to root out the personality types of insiders who might do something similar.

So far, the Insider Threat Program does not appear to be working all that well since the president launched it with an executive order nearly two years ago, in October 2011, after U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from a classified computer network and gave them to WikiLeaks, the anti-government-secrecy group.

Clearly it did not catch or stop Snowden.

Still, the language of the program is chilling – not many steps away from the Stalinist era in Russia, when children were encouraged to report their parents to the government if they saw or heard them saying or doing anything that sounded disloyal to the regime.

In the government workplace, it’s about profiling, which is ironic in the extreme. We are regularly told that profiling is a terrible evil. But, of course, that too is selective. It is evil if it has to do with race, gender, sexual preference or other matters governed by political correctness. The Transportation Security Agency has to put everybody through the same airport security wringer to avoid even the hint of profiling those who have shown, after countless incidents, they are most likely to commit a terrorist attack.

But in this case, workers are told, and trained, to profile – “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,’” according to McClatchy.

Other behaviors to report include stress and divorce. It even extends to political leanings – whether or not a worker expresses a desire to help the “underdog.”

There are now special “insider threat” offices where managers will have access to the “personnel, payroll, disciplinary and ‘personal contact’ files, as well as records of their use of classified and unclassified computer networks, polygraph results, travel reports and financial disclosure forms” of any employee who might fall under suspicion.

A disclaimer here: It is reasonable for any organization, public or private, to expect and demand loyalty from those on its payroll. If there is credible suspicion that someone is stealing from the company or sharing proprietary secrets, the company has a right to investigate it.

But this program goes beyond that, to the level of the Thought Police of “1984”. It doesn’t just apply to agencies involved with security, but to every federal department, including the Peace Corps and the Department of Education.

Those who fail to report on a coworker who ends up going rogue could face criminal penalties.

And, McClatchy reports, the profiling techniques have not even been proven to work.

This effort to turn the federal workforce into an army of Big Brothers is unlikely to make the nation more secure. It is more likely to turn the workplace into an arena of fear, distrust and suspicion. Who will want to collaborate with anyone else on a project, when an idle comment about politics or a mention of stress at home might bring a blowtorch of surveillance on one’s every activity?

Would you be open to a collegial relationship with a coworker when the thought would always be in the back of your mind that he or she might have been assigned to draw you out on your views, work habits and relationships?

Most important of all, the program does not breed loyalty and unity. It is a recipe for division.

And for those who say this is all just paranoia – that Obama is simply trying to protect citizens from those who would do us harm – just try a simple thought experiment: Imagine it was President George W. Bush doing it.

Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at t.armerding@verizon.com.