By Bill Boyarsky
President Barack Obama’s pursuit of leakers recalls McCarthy era witch hunts, which paralyzed government with fear, turned bosses into mind-control cops and set colleagues against one another. It’s not a stretch to wonder whether the same climate, discouraging dissent and independent thinking, is partially responsible for the troubled launch of Obamacare.
The extent of the leaker hunt was revealed June 20 in a story by Marisa Taylor and Jonathan S. Landay of the McClatchy Washington Bureau. They said the effort, the Insider Threat Program, has reached far beyond national security departments into “most federal agencies nationwide, including the Peace Corps, the Social Security Administration, and the Education and Agriculture Departments.” Social Security is a major component of the Health and Human Services Department, which runs the Affordable Care Act.
Government bosses are given wide latitude to search for leakers, the journalists wrote. “Government documents reviewed by McClatchy illustrate how some agencies are using that latitude to pursue unauthorized disclosures of any information, not just classified material,” Landay and Taylor disclosed. “They also show how millions of federal employees and contractors must watch for ‘high risk persons or behaviors’ among co-workers and could face penalties including criminal charges for failing to report them.” Indications of suspicious behavior include “stress, divorce and financial problems.”
The journalists said current and past government officials told them that Insider Threat could block the flow of important and unclassified information to the public and create “toxic work environments poisoned by unfounded suspicions and spurious investigations of loyal Americans.”
This is what happened when the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy rampaged through politics in Cold War America.
Government, academia, the movie industry, Broadway, literature and other businesses were paralyzed in the post World War II period as McCarthy and many others—including the Truman administration—searched for suspected Communists. The careers of distinguished diplomats were ruined because they correctly reported on the corruption and incompetence of the Chinese Nationalists and predicted that the Communists would take over China. Domestically, witch hunting immobilized liberals and proposals such as national health insurance withered and died.
In her book “The Age of McCarthyism,” Ellen Schrecker writes of a telling incident that sounds familiar to those of us who lived the period. University of Chicago graduate students began circulating a petition for a coffee vending machine outside the physics department for late night workers. But their colleagues refused to sign because “they did not want to be associated with the allegedly radical students whose names were already on the document.”
That’s how people act in a witch hunt when they know a career rival, a jealous colleague, or a tyrannical frightened supervisor could turn them in for talking to a journalist, even at Little League practice or having lunch or carpooling with a suspected leaker. The chain of suspicion is endless, reaching families, friends, work associates, even acquaintances.
So far, media attention has been on leaks to publications and websites by courageous people such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. The spotlight has also been on the Obama administration’s seizure of Associated Press phone records and the investigation of James Rosen of Fox News.
But the Insider Threat Program is also relevant when considering the botched introduction of the Obamacare computer signup Oct. 1.
Without mentioning the infamous old senator, Ezra Klein of The Washington Post described an operation filled with workers afraid of getting in trouble, a McCarthyism symptom.
In a Wonkblog post, Klein and Evan Soltas wrote, “The problem here isn’t just technological. It’s managerial. The White House’s senior staff—up to and including the president—was blindsided. Staffers deep in the process knew that HealthCare.gov wasn’t ready for primetime. But those frustrations were hidden from top-level managers. Somewhere along the chain the information was spun, softened, or just plain buried.” In another post, they wrote, “staff was terrified to speak on the record, or even on background. ...”
Was the leaker-hunting state of mind in the Obama administration, reaching from the president to deep into the bureaucracy, responsible for the failure of workers to tell their bosses the system wasn’t ready for introduction?
If they were the bearers of bad news, the bosses might accuse them of showing stress or other “high risk behavior.”
Granted, Insider Threat was designed to deal with national security leaks. But administrators, being what they are, could well use their wide latitude to go beyond national security and to stifle dissent on non-security matters in departments like Health and Human Services, whose purview certainly is not national security.
There are many reasons for the Affordable Care Act’s poor performance on opening day. Technical and managerial failures were responsible, as was heavy pressure from the White House to begin enrollments Oct. 1.
But fear of delivering bad news, of being perceived as a dissenter, a poor team player, an arguer—all admirable qualities in a creative organization—could well share the blame. Who wants to bring bad news to the White House?
It would be ironic if the introduction of President Obama’s proudest achievement has been tainted by his obsession with rooting out leakers.