The recent convergence of several politically difficult factors involving the surveillance capabilities and operations of the National Security Agency (NSA) also highlights the need for greater vigilance of so-called “insider” risks. In June 2013, Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor/analyst, was charged with stealing and releasing to the media potentially damaging ified information, which is a clear violation of various sections of the U.S. Espionage Act. While continuing to breach the public trust vested in him, Snowden made his way to Russia, which granted him sanctuary from U.S. prosecution.
The Snowden incident follows a long line of similar breaches. According to a number of media reports, at least eight people have been charged by the U.S. government in recent years with violating the Espionage Act. Those charged include a number of employees and contractors from various government agencies, such as the U.S. Departments of Defense, State, and Justice, as well as NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Unlike the era of the famous trial and executions of U.S. citizens Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s, in which public opinion overwhelmingly considered such persons to be traitors, the public opinion about Snowden (and others who have leaked confidential information) is somewhat mixed. According to a 27 July 2013 broadcast by National Public Radio, the arguably mixed public opinion in the United States may have been an influential factor in the decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to accept the political risk of giving Snowden at least temporary asylum.
Complicating the picture even more is the fact that U.S. public opinion is mixed in the case of U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning, sentenced in August 2013 to 35 years in prison for having released tens of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Under U.S. law, Manning could be released from prison in less than 10 years.
Espionage: Personal Conscience & Public Opinion
In the Manning case, the defense team argued that the PFC’s criminal behavior was an act of conscience. That allegation put Manning more or less in lockstep with Snowden, whose alleged principal motivation – as even President Obama acknowledged in a 9 August 2013 public address – also was his personal and professional conscience.
Public debates over acts of conscience were all but absent during the Cold War espionage cases of the 1950s and 1960s. However, the famous Ellsberg-Russo “Pentagon Papers” trial of the early 1970s was an important turning point for U.S. public opinion. At that time, the American people were increasingly frustrated by the seemingly endless war in Vietnam and the revelation of the ified internal analysis contained in the Pentagon Paper fueled even deeper frustration and distrust in government. Some of the same public perception dynamic is re-experienced today.
Another major insider threat news story receiving global attention is the recently concluded trial of Major Nidal Hasan, U.S. Army Medical Corps, who was convicted and was sentenced to death for killing 13 innocent victims, and wounding 32 others, during a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, on 5 November 2009. Hasan, representing himself, used the trial as a major public forum to express his own views and “personal conscience” defense.
Hasan’s personal views obviously have had little effect on public opinion in the United States, but resonate strongly in at least a few other parts of the world. In fact, according to a motion filed by Hasan’s standby counsel team in August 2013, their client had from the start been “engaging to working toward the death penalty.” Martyrdom is a well-recognized method for conveying a message of commitment to a cause. Regardless of whether the 2009 Fort Hood slaughter is viewed as an act of terrorism or workplace violence, the “insider threat” implications are profound and continue to resonate years after the criminal act itself.
Lone Actors: Physical & Cyber Threats
The proliferation of insider threat actors in recent years has not been lost on transnational terrorist organizations. In the spring 2013 issue of al-Qaida’s online publication Inspire, numerous special messages were focused on instructing and motivating the “lone actor” terrorist. Instructions in the form of an Open Source Jihad are specifically designed to facilitate the physical attack methodologies that can be used to exploit the inherent vulnerabilities of free industrialized nations.
Not incidentally, the same source also comments on the value of attracting journalists to al-Qaida’s radical cause not only by exposing western government security information but also by providing direct surveillance support. Moreover, according to a 15 August 2013 analysis by the Middle East Media Research Institute, the rebuilding and reconfiguration of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the post-bin Laden era is elevating the Yemeni cell leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, as the terrorist plot source of recently intercepted communiqués that led up to, and resulted in, the U.S. shutdown of numerous diplomatic missions throughout the Middle East. Al-Wuhayshi is known to be a strong proponent of lone-wolf attack methods and of further diffusing the radical jihadist cause. The Middle East Media Research Institute credits al-Wuhayshi, in fact, with creation of the AQAP’s growing cyber capabilities.
The convergence of these several public opinion trends – in the form of massively damaging insider espionage, growing public sympathy and ambivalence, the escalating terrorist calls for lone-actor proliferation, and the global publicity given to extreme insider violent attacks, along with AQAP’s strengthened cyber capabilities – should be of significant concern across the public and private sectors. This is particularly so in an age of increasing reliance on information technology.
All of these trends coupled with massive consequences for U.S. security significantly magnify the potential associated risks, thus demanding much greater attention to personnel surety controls and more effective cyber security at all levels within the public and private sectors. Official recognition of these trends should generate the actionable situational awareness needed as a foundation for managing the significant and rapidly growing risks posed by insider threats.
Joseph W. Trindal
As founder and president of Direct Action Resilience LLC, Joseph Trindal leads a team of retired federal, state, and local criminal justice officials providing consulting and training services to public and private sector organizations enhancing leadership, risk management, preparedness, and police services. He serves as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Justice, International Criminal Justice Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP) developing and leading delivery of programs that build post-conflict nations’ capabilities for democratic policing and applied modern investigative techniques. After a 20-year career with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he served as chief deputy U.S. marshal and ERT incident commander, he accepted the invitation in 2002 to become part of the leadership standing up the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as director at Federal Protective Service for the National Capital Region. He serves on the Partnership Advisory Council at the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST). He also serves on the International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Managers of Police Academy and College Training. He was on faculty as an instructor at George Washington University. He is past president of the InfraGard National Capital Region Members Alliance. He has published numerous articles, academic papers, and technical counter-terrorism training programs. He has two sons on active duty in the U.S. Navy. Himself a Marine Corps veteran, he holds degrees in police science and criminal justice. He has contributed to the Domestic Preparedness Journal since 2006 and is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council.