For the past few months I have been doing some background reading for a book project that I’m considering.
I just finished Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel’s Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy, the remarkable 1995 biography of Theodore Hall, the teenage Harvard physicist wunderkind working at Los Alamos, who gave the soviets the secrets to the atomic bomb.
During the Second World War the Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corp at Los Alamos knew full well the responsibility it faced trying to protect the most carefully guarded secret in America’s arsenal.
Using a vast array of surveillance coverage in and around the Los Alamos site and on into neighboring Santa Fe, New Mexico they convinced themselves in 1944 that they had discovered a full-fledged spy in their midst.
His foreign background coupled with his strange behavior singled him out as what we refer today as a “high risk” employee.
In 1939, after moving from Poland to Britain for advanced studies, the German surprise attack on his country trapped his wife and prevented his return home. He never saw her again. (She later perished at the Mejdanek concentration camp.)
His exceptional talent as a physicist and friendship with James Chadwick, the head of the British mission at Los Alamos, guaranteed him a place on the British team working on the bomb.
Another red flag was the initial US denial of his visa when he refused to accept British citizenship because he intended to reunite with his wife in Poland after the war.
CIC knew they had their man when a “source” described him as a secret communist intent on returning to Poland in the hope of conveying the bomb secret to the Soviets.
His plan was to somehow slip away from Los Alamos and then escape the US unnoticed, cross the Atlantic, and then parachute into Poland or the Soviet Union where he would connect up with local communists.
In fact, he hoped to return to England to battle the Germans by joining the Royal Air Force.
The Los Alamos “High Risk” spy who fell under the CIC’s bright light was not a spy at all: He was Joseph Rotblat, an innocent scientist.
Decades later his colleagues made him a Fellow of the British Royal Society for his contributions to the advancement of physics; Queen Elizabeth appointed him a Commander of the British Empire and Sweden awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Another intriguing aspect of this story is that the government’s elaborate and expensive security screen, A) never uncovered any espionage and B) wasted its efforts on Rotblat while completely missing three Soviet agents, Klaus Fuchs, Ted Hall, and David Greenglass who anonymously plied their spy trade at Los Alamos right under CIC’s nose.
Did I mention George Koval, another Russian agent at Oak Ridge, who only came to public attention more than half a century later thanks to Vladimir Putin.
So it was with this story still freshly in my mind that I read a disturbing article in the March 11, 2014 edition of The Washington Post entitled “Federal agencies eager to find enemies within.”
Don’t get me wrong, federal employees with clearances or without have no right to conduct personal business on government computers at any time.
Likewise, the government has an obligation to protect its property through constant monitoring of action across its network systems to right down to an analyst’s key strokes.
I also endorse the government plans to tie into law enforcement and credit agencies which would greatly facilitate periodic re-investigations that have been routine for years.
My concerns, however, focus on the US government’s deployment of new internal threat technologies designed to watch employees.
The idea is to scrutinize workers for any changes in their “behavior and tone” in the hope of predicting who “might go rogue.”
James O’Connor, Lockheed Martin’s vice-president for analysis and mission solutions calls it “digital intuition” which evaluates “employee behavior patterns, flagging individuals who exhibit high risk characteristics.”
I’m no “Dr. Phil” but my skepticism further skyrocketed when I read the manufacturers’ bewildering claims that they can “assess insider threatening behaviors without breaching privacy.”
They somehow measure a person’s “activities and the transactions over the networks” without absorbing the “content of that data.”
They read no emails or texts but instead examine “patterns” of behavior rather than behavior itself.
How does one do that with even a modicum of accuracy?
How chilling must it be for a valued employee to be suddenly singled out for investigation by watchers studying vague “patterns” with no knowledge of the content?
And what must government employees think about the DNI’s latest request additional funds from Congress for a system of “continuous evaluation” of their “electronic behavior both on the job as well as off the job.”
Did I mention that the watchers will most likely be government contractors needing only a security clearance and five years of counterintelligence experience?
In this day and age I wonder what passes for counterintelligence experience and if I want my behavior patterns analyzed by someone with such minimal qualifications.
Fear-based fixations on employee behavior patterns are a monumental waste of time and tax payer money.
These are unreliable voodoo quick fixes sold by companies interested in their bottom lines to terrified business and government leaders desperate for any high-tech solutions that will prevent another Manning or Snowden.
In truth, history tells us that large expensive and impractical systems designed to troll for the rogue are unreliable and doomed to failure.
Remember President Roosevelt’s re-location to concentration camps of tens of thousands of loyal Japanese-Americans living peacefully in California.
And then there was President Truman’s Loyalty Boards which required government workers to report on colleagues suspected of communist or fascist sympathies.
Truman’s program crushed employee morale, created a wide spread atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust while wasting billions of dollars in FBI investigation. In the end, the program was dropped.
A more recent example is Project Slammer, an Intelligence Community sponsored study in the late 1980s designed to identify characteristics of a potential insider rogue.
In fact, after interviewing dozens of convicted espionage agents, psychologists found nothing conclusive in their backgrounds which offered predictors of future espionage activities.
Over my twenty-five years of federal service I encountered dozens of men and women who, under the government’s current fuzzy criteria, approached and even exceeded the term “high risk”; yet none of them were disloyal.
The actual spy who I knew personally was Robert Hanssen; a devious creature who scrupulously avoided any security radar systems.
During my FBI career I was involved in a number of espionage cases including the Navy’s John and Michael Walker, NSA’s Ronald Pelton, the Army’s Daniel Walter Richardson and Thomas Dolce.
All of them were treacherous and all of them followed the rules by carefully avoiding “high risk” behavior.
I have no doubt that Rotblat would easily be detected under these new protocols.
At the same time, however, I am convinced that today’s Fuchs, Halls, Kovals and Greenglasses would blend in and make no waves while relentlessly scheming for ways to improve their access without raising suspicions.
I have a few additional thoughts which I would like to share and will do so over the weeks and months ahead. Stay tuned.
– – – – –
Federal agencies embrace new technology and strategies to find the enemy within (Washington Post, 7 March 2014)
U.S. to Secret Clearance Holders; We’re Watching You (AP, 11 March 2014)