WASHINGTON -- 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.
Mr. Obama mandated the program in an October 2011 executive order after 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. The order covers virtually every federal department and agency, including the Peace Corps, the Department of Education and others not directly involved in national security.
Under the program, 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. 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 co-workers' lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors -- such as financial troubles, odd working hours or unexplained travel -- as a way to predict whether they might do "harm to the United States." Managers of special insider threat offices will have "regular, timely and, if possible, electronic access" to employees' 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.
Over the years, numerous studies of public and private workers who have been caught spying, leaking classified information, stealing corporate secrets or engaging in sabotage have identified psychological profiles that could offer clues to possible threats. Administration officials want government workers trained to look for such indicators and report them, so the next violation can be stopped before it happens.
"In past espionage cases, we find people saw things that may have helped identify a spy, but never reported it," said Gene Barlow, spokesman for the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, which oversees government efforts to detect threats such as spies and computer hackers and is helping implement the Insider Threat Program. "That is why the awareness effort of the program is to teach people not only what types of activity to report, but how to report it, and why it is so important to report it."
But even the government's top scientific advisers have questioned these techniques. Those experts say 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," a 2008 National Research Council report on detecting terrorists concluded.
"Doing something similar about predicting future leakers seems even more speculative," Carnegie Mellon University statistics and social science professor Stephen Fienberg in Pittsburgh, a member of the NRC committee that wrote the report, said in an interview.
The emphasis on individual lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors comes as growing numbers of Americans must submit to extensive background checks, polygraph tests and security investigations to be hired or to keep government or federal contracting jobs. The U.S. government is one of the world's largest employers, overseeing an ever-expanding ocean of information.
While the Insider Threat Program mandates that the nearly 5 million federal workers and contractors with clearances undergo training in recognizing suspicious behavior indicators, it lets individual departments and agencies extend the requirement to their entire workforces, which the Army already has done.
The White House, Justice Department, Peace Corps and departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Education refused to answer questions about the program's implementation. White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in her statement that the Insider Threat Program includes extra safeguards for "civil rights, civil liberties and privacy," but she didn't elaborate. She added that Pfc. Manning's leaks to WikiLeaks showed that protections of classified materials then were "inadequate and put our nation's security at risk."
Even so, the new effort failed to prevent former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden from taking top-secret documents detailing the agency's domestic and international communications monitoring programs and leaking them to Britain's The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers.
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. Asked about the ineffectiveness of behavior profiling, Mr. Barlow said the policy "does not mandate" that employees report behavior indicators. "It simply educates employees about basic activities or behavior that might suggest a person is up to improper activity," he said.