A U.S. government espionage task force is advising its defense industry partners that whistleblowers can be as dangerous as terrorists and spies.
During a “webinar” on Tuesday, an official from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s National Insider Threat Task Force showed a PowerPoint slide with examples of “insider threats.” Thomas Drake, who exposed part of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program in 2005, is next to Fort Hood killer Nidal Hasan, Navy Yard killer Aaron Alexis, and FBI-agent-turned-Soviet-spy Robert Hanssen.
Not only is Drake not a murderer or spy, the government was forced to drop all 10 of the original espionage-related charges against him after he rejected numerous plea deals. Drake did plead guilty to a misdemeanor, and since leaving the NSA has actively campaigned for government transparency and accountability.
Drake told The Daily Beast that government is “still ticked that I escaped prison or any conviction as a felon, giving others hope because I kept my freedoms when under the gun after so many years — albeit at a very high professional and personal price.”
More than just sour grapes, Drake says, this kind of blacklisting is a tacit personal threat.
“Apparently I have damaged the U.S. more than the likes of Alger Hiss, the Walkers, Pollard, the Falcon and the Snowman, and even Ellsberg—none of them are listed. There is no question and it's chilling — I am on a National Threat List. And a clear warning to me with respect to the exercise of my First Amendment rights.”
Patricia Larsen, an ODNI official, gave a history of “insider threats” during the webinar beginning with Daniel Ellsberg, whose copying of the Pentagon Papers she characterized as patently criminal. (Charges against Ellsberg were dropped in 1973 when it was revealed the FBI used warrantless wiretaps on him.)
Larsen referred to Drake and Edward Snowden as being "self-radicalized" as opposed to the rest of the "rogues gallery" that were recruited by a foreign government.
The one common characteristic of all ten "that have done us harm," according to Larsen: "a strong, strong egotistical streak."
The webinar was entitled “Simple Steps and Guidance to Secure Classified Networks” and is part of defense industry publication C4ISRNET’s (C4ISR is a military acronym for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence) “Thought Leadership Series,” and purported to teach participants information security skills and to familiarize them with threats to documents and networks.
Larsen emphasized that any employees and contractors who damage an entity’s reputation, be it government or business, by exposing inside information should be considered insider threats, as they “would be in the business world.”
Other threats in the landscape include anonymous dropbox services used by news organizations, like SecureDrop at The Washington Post, New Yorker, The Guardian, The Intercept and Gawker.
Discussing the motivations of historical threats, Larsen said that for a government agency it doesn’t really matter if an employee is motivated by sincere ideals or is driven by psychosis, the threat to sensitive information is the same. Regarding Aaron Alexis, the Naval Yard shooter, Larsen said “he truly believed he was subject to ultra low frequency attacks. Now that’s clearly not the case, but because he had access to a secure facility, and because he could get a gun, he caused a terrible day for a lot of people at the Washington Navy Yard.”
“So there’s a nuance between Aldrich Ames and Snowden?” asked webinar moderator Steve Gottwals of Adobe Federal.
“Definitely,” replied Larsen, adding that Snowden saw the government as being involved in a global surveillance scheme that trampled on privacy rights, “which is of course, not what we are doing.”
Ames, on the other hand, acted out of a sense that he simply knew what was best, said Larsen. A slide quoted the defector “...and I know what the Soviet Union is all about, and I know what’s best for foreign policy and national security….and I’m going to act on that.”
Members of the U.S. intelligence community have made a practice of attributing official security shortfalls to Snowden’s disclosures of the NSA metadata surveillance program.
Some have gone so as far to blame to rise of ISIS in its current form on Snowden. Michael Morrell, the former deputy director of the CIA, said in his book last year that terrorist “communications sources dried up, tactics were changed” as soon as Snowden’s leaks hit the public. Morrell even said Snowden may be partly to blame for the attacks in Paris last Friday.
An ODNI spokesperson was not available to comment on the webinar.
Editor's Note: This story was updated on 11/23/15 with new information from the full webinar.