In Early 2020, Pentagon Launched 'Aggressive' Investigation Into 'Bad Leaks'

Defense Secretary Mark Esper further tightened the flow of information to media

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The Pentagon launched an "aggressive" investigation of leaks earlier this year that relies upon an insider threat program established and expanded under President Barack Obama.

Officials are also employing "continuous evaluation," or total surveillance, of personnel, yet there is very little evidence that safeguards have been implemented to protect the rights of employees and ensure a chilling effect that already lingers does not intensify against potential whistleblowers.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing on July 9, Esper revealed the Pentagon is pursuing "bad leaks" from "last fall." He encouraged personnel to focus on "operational security," however, leaks continued. So, Esper initiated an investigation into leaks, whether it was classified information or "unclassified information” that was “sensitive." He also urged investigators to examine "unauthorized discussions with the media."

Esper ticked off nearly every box an official typically would when providing an evidence-free boilerplate condemnation of leaks.

"All those things, again, hurt our nation's security. They undermine our troops, their safety. They affect our relations with other countries. They undermine our national policy. It's bad, and it's happening all over the government—executive branch, legislative branch, to some degree."

"So it's something we need to get control of, and that is not new to this administration," Esper added. "Previous administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, have had to deal with this. It's just, it's bad, and it's unlawful, and it needs to stop."

Esper's testimony was in response to a question from Don Bacon, a Republican Representative in Nebraska. Bacon was upset about leaks to the media that alleged the Russian government paid militants to attack United States soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

"I think it's imperative that we start holding people accountable to the maximum sentence, you know, that the law allows," Bacon declared. (Note: U.S. intelligence agencies never found conclusive evidence to corroborate allegations, which were laundered through the press.)

The zeal to crack down on leaks is emblematic of President Donald Trump's administration. As reported by Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News, the number of "classified information" leaks referred for prosecution by the Justice Department surged to their highest levels in 2017 (120 referrals) and 2018 (88 referrals).

But the infrastructure for controlling the free flow of information was not developed in the era of Trump. It largely stems from the U.S. government's panicked response to U.S. military whistleblower Chelsea Manning and the publication of hundreds of thousands of documents by WikiLeaks, as well as NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's disclosures on mass surveillance.

A 'Top Down' System For Surveillance Of Hundreds Of Thousands Of Pentagon Personnel


In 2012, Pentagon Secretary Leon Panetta oversaw the implementation of a "top down" system for monitoring "major, national media reporting for 'unauthorized disclosures.'"

The system further established training on what constituted an "unauthorized disclosure" and developed an “Automated Security Incident Reporting System,” an “online reporting system for significant security incidents for use across the department."

Limitations were set on the use of removable storage devices on the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet), which is a network of databases with information shared among numerous agencies in the federal government.

Surveillance of Defense Department networks was "escalated" to "spot anomalous behavior" and identify "malicious insiders." That involved the creation of a "Comprehensive Insider Threat Program" and the establishment of an Unauthorized Disclosures Working Group.

That same year, the Army Times reported that the military would monitor soldiers' "keystrokes, downloads, and web searches on computers."

By 2015, according to a report to Congress also obtained by Secrecy News, at least 100,000 military, civilian, and contractor personnel at the Defense Department were placed under constant surveillance with all their electronic activities and communications tracked.

The amount of personnel monitored was on track to balloon to 225,000 agency personnel by the end of the year. One million employees were expected to be tracked constantly by 2017.

McClatchy Newspapers exposed the McCarthyism central to the operations of newly implemented insider threat programs.

During 2016, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) called attention to the Pentagon as it required contractors to "gather, integrate, and report" information on "potential internal threats in order to identify and stop the unauthorized disclosure of classified information before it occurs."

POGO warned such an expansion of insider threat programs in government "threaten whistleblowers’ ability to report waste, fraud, and abuse because they do not differentiate between genuine threats and those who are acting in the interest of the public."

Indeed, training has lumped Chelsea Manning and NSA whistleblowers Thomas Drake, Edward Snowden, and Reality Winner in with Nidal Hasan and Aaron Alexis, the Fort Hood and Navy Yard shooters.

Manning obtained a document from 2014 that showed agencies may target anyone who has "motives of 'greed,' 'financial difficulties,' is 'disgruntled,' has 'an ideology,' a 'divided loyalty,' an 'ego' or 'self-image,' or 'any family/personal issues'—the words used to describe [Manning's] motives."

"Such subjective labeling could easily be applied to virtually every single person currently holding a security clearance," 

Nothing in the file described what would happen if a person exhibiting these “behavior indicators” or “insider threat motives” was, in fact, going through “proper channels”—through the chain of command or to a member of Congress—to reveal waste, fraud, abuse, illegality, or other acts of corruption.

However, it is entirely possible an employee could exhibit these behaviors because he or she was concerned their superiors would find out he or she was exposing their misconduct to officials. They may seem paranoid because they feared what would happen to their careers.

The Loose Lips Of High-Ranking Pentagon Officials


While Panetta was in the middle of expanding the intrusive infrastructure for an insider threat program, the Pentagon chief leaked classified information about the Osama bin Laden raid. He was never prosecuted.

But Daniel Meyer, a Pentagon employee, provided an unclassified version of an inspector general's report to Congress, which contained details on the leak. Meyer became the target of a leak prosecution.

The episode is one of many examples in the past decade of the double standard in the Pentagon and all U.S. intelligence agencies, where high-ranking officials are allowed to engage in freedom of speech on issues and policy matters and low-ranking personnel are forced to submit to authority or face the consequences.

In 2017, Pentagon Secretary James Mattis, Esper's predecessor, issued a memo warning personnel against leaks the same week that he leaked information about rules of engagement in Afghanistan before they were "issued as orders to troops."

The New York Times reported, "With the new rules caught in bureaucratic limbo, Mr. Mattis effectively telegraphed the military’s plans to the Taliban before they could be put into action.

"The disclosure signaled to Taliban fighters that some of their well-established sanctuaries [were] no longer safe and that they will need to change how they move around the battlefield to avoid American bombs," according to the Times. "It also [took] away the element of surprise, a core aspect of any battle plan."

Mattis even told the House Armed Services Committee in 2018, "What I don’t want is pre-decisional information or classified information or any information about upcoming military movements or operations [disclosed], which is the normal loose lips sink ships kind of restriction.”

Justice Department officials have prosecuted several individuals for leaks in the past 12 years, and in each of those cases, they have invoked elements of the Espionage Act—particularly the part about disclosing information that "could be used to the injury of the United States"—to make an example out of lower level government employees.

Yet, someone like Mattis will never be categorized as an "insider threat" and spied upon until their access to classified information is revoked or monitors determine greater intervention is necessary.

At the same hearing, Mattis also stated, "I want more engagement with the media. I want you to give your name. I don’t want to read that somebody [spoke] on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak. I have yet to tell anyone they are not authorized to speak. So if they are not willing to say they know about the issue and give their name, that would concern me.

"If they are giving background, they should just be a defense official giving background information authorized to give it."

Which shows the present system is one of authorized leaks from "senior officials." It encourages propaganda that serves the Pentagon's daily talking points but conceals waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality. It relies on the over-classification of information to shield those high in the chain of command from accountability.

The outcome of Esper's "aggressive" leak investigation will reflect this dynamic. To the extent that anyone is penalized or punished, it will depend on their rank at the Pentagon and whether what was revealed disrupted the gears of a war machine.

Photos from Defense Department and in the public domain.