The Obama administration is asking federal agencies to monitor employees with an eye toward identifying "insider threats" who might reveal "classified" information that the government is trying to keep from the American people.
The White House Office of Management and Budget this week circulated a memorandum to senior federal officials that urges them to use psychiatrists and sociologists to assess—among other "signals"— the “grumpiness” of federal employees who have access to classified documents. (After years of battering by conservatives who claim that government workers can do nothing right, and with Obama talking up a pay freeze for federal employees, what government worker isn’t grumpy these days?)
The memo is the latest move by the administration—which has been scrambling to prevent more revelations like those exposed by WikiLeaks—to safeguard classified documents and data.
In November, the White House instructed senior federal agencies to set up new “assessment teams” charged with maintaining government secrecy. In December, the OMB ordered federal employees to avoid visiting the WikiLeaks website. And the new memo specifically demands that top officials analyze "what your agency has done or plans to do to address any perceived vulnerabilities, weaknesses, or gaps on automated systems in the post-WikiLeaks environment."
The absurdity of much of what is discussed in the memo ought not obscure the document’s truly troubling sections. In addition to the McCarthyite scheming to make lists of "threatening" employees—on which, we can pretty much be assured, will go the names of union activists and politically engaged workers—the document takes direct aim at the public’s right to know what the government is doing.
The authors of the memo—which came to light, ironically enough, via a leak to NBC—make no bones about seeking to prevent leaks to journalists, who have so frequently relied on information shared by bureaucrats to provide the American people with insights about what the federal government is doing in our name but without our informed consent.
"Are all employees required to report their contacts with the media?" the memo asks senior officials, as part of an outline of preferred policies and approaches.
This is just the latest attempt by the White House to monitor interactions between federal employees and journalists.
When employees are required to reveal their contacts with reporters, two things happen:
First, a structure is established for punishing federal workers who leak information. Even when they do so to protect the public interest or as a matter of conscience, they are still in violation of employment rules, a fact that could make them vulnerable to termination.
Second, a culture of intimidation is created, and with it a chilling effect that all but assures that the sharing of information —however legitimate and necessary—becomes rarer. Government secrecy is extended. And the public’s right to know is hollowed out and rendered meaningless.
That’s fine by the powerful, who have always relied on their control of information to maintain their authority. But it should not be fine by journalists, or citizens.