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Column: Why Our Government Is Afraid of Itself

Supporters of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning begin to demonstrate in front of the White House during a rally in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. Manning was sentenced earlier in the day to 35 years in prison for leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Supporters of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning begin to demonstrate in front of the White House during a rally in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. Manning was sentenced earlier in the day to 35 years in prison for leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

In the popular stereotype, conspiracy theorists direct their paranoia at the government: The CIA shot JFK. NASA faked the moon landing. Sept. 11 was an inside job.

But the most significant sorts of political paranoia are the kinds that catch on with people inside the halls of power, not the folks on the outside looking in. The latest example is a crackdown on leaks that has the government crippled by a fear of its own employees. Washington is petrified of itself.

The federal effort, called the Insider Threat Program, was launched in October 2011, and it certainly hasn’t diminished since Edward Snowden disclosed details of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying. As McClatchy reporters Marisa Taylor and Jonathan S. Landay have described, federal employees and contractors are encouraged to keep an eye on allegedly suspicious “indicators” in their co-workers’ lives, from financial troubles to divorce. A brochure produced by the Defense Security Service, titled INSIDER THREATS: Combating the ENEMY within your organization, sums up the spirit of the program: “It is better to have reported overzealously than never to have reported at all.”

The word “espionage” appears 10 times in that pamphlet, while “leak” isn’t used even once. But the most insidious part of the crackdown is that it blurs the boundary between spies and whistleblowers. This comes, after all, at a time when the government is increasingly willing to prosecute leakers under the Espionage Act. An agent of a foreign power would fall under the program’s purview, but so would someone releasing information to the media. Leaking, one Defense Department document declares, “is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States.”

It doesn’t help that the Insider Threat Program has been adopted in agencies that have little or nothing to do with national security, including the Social Security Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Education and the Peace Corps. A tutorial for Agriculture Department employees includes a long list of “examples of behaviors that may indicate an individual has vulnerabilities that are of security concern.” These include sleeping at your desk — that might be a sign of alcoholism — and “expression of bizarre thoughts, perceptions or expectations.” The list was imported, word for word, from a Defense Department document.

Other conspiracy theories involve groups that seem different: Suspected plotters can be identified by where they live, their racial or ethnic identity, or their social status. The enemy within, by contrast, can live anywhere and look like anyone. The men and women allegedly atop the cabal might be based in another country, but their puppets are ordinary neighbors, co-workers, members of your family. Anyone could conceivably be — or become — part of the plot.

This isn’t the first time an effort intended to protect national security has spiraled into something bigger, messier and more dangerous for individual liberty.

The most famous crackdown on the enemy within was the post-World War II Red Scare, when fear of Soviet spies caused trouble not just for genuine foreign agents but for a host of people who merely had left-wing ideological leanings. Less well known, but arguably even more intrusive, was a simultaneous crackdown that the historian David K. Johnson has called the Lavender Scare.

In those days, gays and lesbians were presumed to be security risks. In 1950, CIA Director Roscoe Hillenkoetter warned a House committee that “perverts in key positions” formed “a government within a government.” Civil-service homosexuals, he continued, “belong to the lodge, the fraternity. One pervert brings other perverts into an agency, they move from position to position, and advance them usually in the interest of furthering the romance of the moment.”

A great purge ensued. Bureaucrats informed investigators about co-workers they suspected of being homosexual; interrogators pressured suspects into naming other gay men and lesbians in the work force. Many private companies in Washington, particularly if they had government contracts that required security clearances, cracked down on their workers as well. Johnson has estimated that the State Department fired about 1,000 employees believed to be homosexuals in the 1950s and ’60s, far more than the number of alleged reds who got the ax. That shouldn’t be surprising: The United States has always been home to far more gays than communists.

Today’s Leak Scare has the potential to be even more open-ended, since it isn’t rooted in fear of a particular country or subculture. There are countless motives for releasing classified or “sensitive” information to the media, from political convictions to bureaucratic turf wars. And there is plenty of material that has been classified not out of a genuine security concern but simply because it might make an agency — or someone inside it — look bad. Meanwhile, the Insider Threat enforcers’ profile of a potential security risk is vague and untested; it could send interrogators on wild goose chases, questioning employees based on groundless suspicions and poisoning the office atmosphere.

Whether or not the profiling can identify potential leakers, it isn’t likely to stop leaks. As security specialist Bruce Schneier wrote when the WikiLeaks cables shook Washington in 2010, “The government is learning what the music and movie industries were forced to learn years ago: It’s easy to copy and distribute digital files.”

Washington is classifying documents at a remarkable rate. According to a report from the Public Interest Declassification Board last year, one intelligence agency alone classifies the equivalent of about 20 million well-stuffed four-drawer filing cabinets every 18 months. Nearly 5 million federal employees or contractors have access to at least some secret information. Even more have access to information that isn’t classified but might embarrass someone.

That creates a double bind: The more the government trusts someone with sensitive data, the more it has reason to fear that person. Trust breeds mistrust. It’s the sort of situation that might make a person paranoid.

Did anyone ever imagine a government so scared of its own shadow? I can think of at least two people who did. One is novelist and essayist Robert Anton Wilson, who often wrote satirically about conspiracies. Any secret police agency, he suggested, must be monitored by another arm of the government, lest it be infiltrated by its enemies. But then “a sinister infinite regress enters the game. Any elite second order police must be, also, subject to infiltration. . . . So it, too, must be monitored, by a secret-police-of-the-third-order” and so on. In practice, of course, this cannot regress to mathematical infinity, but only to the point where every citizen is spying on every other citizen or until the funding runs out.” The point applies not just to police but to any hierarchy with secrets to hide.

The other man is Julian Assange, who in 2006 laid out as clear a statement of his intentions as you’ll find. “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie,” the WikiLeaks founder wrote. That fear will engender more secrecy, he continued, which in turn will make it harder for the institution to act. The Insider Threat Program suggests that Assange was on to something.

So does another development. After the WikiLeaks cables came out, and again after the Snowden revelations, many federal workers found that they couldn’t access websites with news reports about the leaks. If that publicly available material found its way to an Army employee’s computer, the Monterey County (Calif.) Herald reported in June, the authorities might respond with “the wipe or destruction of the computer’s hard drive.” The information was still officially classified, you see.

And so the war on leaks degenerates to a government deliberately destroying its property to keep its staffers from catching sight of publicly available information.

Now there’s an enemy within.

Jesse Walker is the author of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory.