Watch Thy Neighbor
To prevent whistleblowing, U.S. intelligence agencies are instructing staff to spy on their colleagues.
Elham Khorasani was sitting in her car at a stoplight in Northern Virginia when she got the call. It was April 16, 2013. “I’m with the FBI,” a man on the line said, “and we’re at your home executing a search warrant.”
Khorasani was flummoxed. (A pseudonym is being used to protect her privacy.) The Iran native, a U.S. citizen since the 1990s, had worked as a Farsi and Dari language analyst at the National Security Agency (NSA) going on eight years. She had recently been selected for a second tour at Menwith Hill station, the NSA’s mammoth listening post in northern England. Minutes before the FBI called, she’d left a meeting at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI).
“When he said, ‘FBI,’ my mind was going all over the place,” Khorasani says, adding that the most illegal thing she has ever done is get an occasional parking ticket. Yet the agent gave her no information, only instructing her to return to her apartment immediately.
Khorasani describes her life after that day as a nightmare. “They suspended my clearances without giving me any reason,” she remembers. She wasn’t allowed at work, and for two years, the NSA made her “call every day like a criminal, checking in every morning before 8.” Khorasani went to the agency only for interrogations, she says: eight or nine sessions that ran at least five hours each. She was asked about her family, her travel, and her contacts.
She claims that the interrogator was particularly interested in grilling her about Thomas Drake, a former NSA official indicted in 2010 on espionage charges for leaking details about agency waste and abuse to the Baltimore Sun. (I was a member of the defense team on the case, which a judge threw out.) In 2011, Khorasani had met with Drake—whom she contacted via a Facebook account set up specifically for that purpose—to seek his advice on handling what she felt had been poor treatment by the agency while on an overseas posting; she believed that she had been unduly reassigned and had filed an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint. “He said, ‘You’ve got the bull’s-eyes on you. You’re done,’” Khorasani recalls. (In an interview, Drake confirmed their conversation.)
That meeting, Khorasani now thinks, may be what ultimately finished her career. Because of her job complaint—she recalls pointedly telling one EEO official, “You wonder why you have so many whistleblowers,” to which he replied, “Don’t say that word”—and her secret contact with Drake, she guesses the NSA feared she too would start leaking agency information.
Whether her hunch is correct isn’t clear. (The FBI declined to comment; the NSA stated in an email that all “access determinations” are based on evidence but that federal law restricts the agency’s ability to comment publicly on personnel matters.) Yet Khorasani’s story contains echoes of other experiences. Intelligence agencies have long treated perceived threats in their own ranks in a manner befitting a Kafka story. Now, in the era of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, they are ramping up this treatment to root out whistleblowers. In doing so, the government is blurring the line between espionage and truth-telling in the public interest—and showing how security hysteria may prove as dangerous to America as security slumber.
The NSA has its own version of the scarlet letter. For decades, people under suspicion of misconduct have been given a red badge to wear instead of a blue card that usually grants them access to secure facilities. “Red-badgers,” as they’re known, live in purgatory and aren’t told why. They’re assigned to the motor pool, the gardening department, or some other mundane venue, under the watchful eye of the very people scrutinizing their lives—questioning them and searching their offices and homes. I once met a red-badger working at the NSA’s museum; he said he’d been waiting more than a year for his “security problems” to resolve.
Based on interviews with current and former NSA officials, that probably never happened: Most red-badgers are ultimately dismissed, often without explanation, and are warned never to discuss the probe they endured.
What happened to Khorasani wasn’t precisely red-badging, which may signal that it was prompted by a new government inquisition. After the WikiLeaks scandal, the White House issued an executive order directing agencies to protect classified information by cracking down on what the ODNI has called “malicious insiders,” a catchall designation that encompasses whistleblowers. According to an ODNI slide presentation, the insider threat program covers more than 70 government entities, ranging from the NSA to the Peace Corps. Overseeing implementation is a task force led by the attorney general and the director of national intelligence (DNI).
Among the techniques used to track whistleblowers are employing “trained insider threat professionals,” which may mean spies planted among staff, and requiring personnel to report colleagues’ suspicious behavior. According to a 2013 McClatchy investigation, the program’s terms can be downright Orwellian. The Department of Education, for instance, warns employees to keep an eye on co-workers going through particular life experiences—“stress, divorce, financial problems”—because they might turn into “insider threat[s].”
The program continues to grow. In 2014, DNI James Clapper told Congress of plans to monitor 24/7 the electronic activity—“behavior on the job as well as off”—of employees with security clearances, a system known as continuous evaluation. In April 2015, the Defense Department reported that it was “directing multiple pilots and concept demonstrations … to conduct [continuous evaluation] on approximately 100,000 military, civilian and contractor personnel.” Then, in October, it opened its Insider Threat Management Analysis Center to collect and coordinate potentially “adverse” information about Defense Department workers.
It’s difficult to know how many people the insider threat program has ensnared, because its overseers aren’t saying. Yet critics are already clamoring about overreach. In January, 22 organizations signed a letter arguing that the government is using an overly broad definition of “threat” that “fails to distinguish between those who want to fix problems from those who wish to do harm to our national security.” The Government Accountability Project has asked pointedly, “Threats to whom?”
Perversely, the program may actually be a threat to intelligence agencies. On top of stifling whistleblowers, the hunt for “malicious insiders” could jettison gifted analysts, create insidious distrust among colleagues, and even discourage prospective talent from taking jobs.
Khorasani knows this all too well. She has had trouble finding employment since last April, when the NSA forced her to resign. The reasons that happened “cannot be made available … without damaging the national security interests of the United States,” according to an internal memo signed by NSA Deputy Director Richard H. Ledgett that Khorasani obtained. She keeps documents related to her investigation in a box at her apartment.
She never leaves the papers at home for long, however. “If I go somewhere [on a trip], I have to take that box all the way to Virginia, leave it with a friend,” Khorasani says. “I cannot travel with peace of mind, knowing that no one is going to walk in here when I’m gone.”
Clarification: The piece originally stated that the NSA declined to comment.
A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April issue of FP.
Illustration by Matthew Hollister