The BBC is reporting today that the Obama administration is developing a “test” to detect whistleblowers. “Clearly there are different reasons why people leak information, the public spirited uncovering of wrong-doing being one of them,” BBC reporter Olivia Lang writes. Based on documents obtained by Mike Isikoff of MSNBC, the new program will use sociologists and psychiatrists to discover potential leakers. Perhaps these experts will be so smart that they can find whistleblowers before the whistleblowers find wrongdoing to blow the whistle on. Call me old fashioned, but I would have thought that it would be a better use of money to find what is wrong with the government programs and fix that so no one will have to blow the whistle.
The report says that the program has already been used by the intelligence agencies, and now the administration wants to expand the program to other federal departments. The program will also use polygraph examinations and look for foreign travel and contacts. Another indicator of risk is if the employee is unhappy. Perhaps the polygraph exam will cheer them up.
How accurate can such a test be? Is it good enough to use in court to prove that a whistleblower really is a whistleblower? “[N]othing is foolproof, and there is a lot of wishful thinking being portrayed as science,” says Shari Pfleeger, director of research at the Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection at Dartmouth College.
Proponents of the “insider threat program” will look for “concerning behavior.” This is a concern itself. What would such a program think of an employee who believes that agency managers engaged in illegal race or gender discrimination? How would the program distinguish between a civil rights advocate and a threat to national security? Smart employees will learn to keep their eyes focused on the floor in front of them, and their mouths shut. “If employees are coerced and intimidated into remaining silent when they should speak out, the result can be catastrophic.” Rose v. Secretary of Department of Labor (6th Cir. 1986), 800 F.2d 563, 565 (J. Edwards concurring). That is the real cost of a witch hunt, and the cost is too high.
See also, John Nichols blog post on The Nation.