Insider threat initiative highlights ‘workplace culture’ on program’s 10-year anniversary

Nearly a decade after agencies were directed to establish formal insider threat programs, national security officials are largely focused on high profile issues like stopping Chinese data theft and rooting out extremism within the armed forces.

But during a Sept. 2 event to kick off “Insider Threat Awareness Month,” leaders highlighted the importance of a positive workplace culture to address all forms of insider threat.

Mike Orlando, acting director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said his directorate is mostly focused on adversaries attempting to steal know-how about sensitive government and military technologies.

“Today, we are increasingly seeing that private sector information is most at risk,” Orlando said. “And on top of that, we are continuing to see adversaries trying to steal government information.”

The National Insider Threat Task Force, which Orlando leads, is starting to reach out to the private sector with unclassified publications on insider threats, including recent documents focused on the food and agriculture sector, and critical infrastructure, respectively.

“And I expect we will do other intelligence perspectives as time goes on to help our private sector and critical sector partners,” he said.

In order to get “left of loss,” Orlando said the task force is also highlighting the importance of organizational trust and workplace culture for both agencies and private sector partners. He highlighted studies showing a positive work environment with managers who engage with their employees can lead to more productive workplaces and better business results.

“And so what I ask when you think about these studies, think about how that fits into your insider threat programs, that good leadership, good management, good culture can actually have a great impact on reducing insider threat,” he said.

Defense Department officials are particularly focused on mental health and addressing the effects of toxic workplace environments on employees, according to Tara Jones, deputy director for defense intelligence within the Defense Department’s office of counterintelligence, law enforcement and security.

“How are we focused on those relationships, and creating an environment where insiders are actively contributing, feeling part of something bigger than themselves, understanding their value to the organization, being shown their values to their organization, and doing everything they can, out of this sense of belonging, that they are being vigilant against the myriad threats,” Jones said.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks is engaging DoD leaders on “the importance of mental health and removing the stigma around seeking help,” she added.

“What we’re trying to do with our insider threat community is change the culture of, it is not meant to be an avenue to tattletale on anyone or to get anyone in trouble,” Jones said. “We want to shift the focus away from, this is your opportunity to raise a security violation and get someone kicked out or disciplined or what have you. This is truly about taking care of people, this is about ensuring that if they’re having difficulty, and they need help, that they can get the help they need.”

Lawmakers bolster DoD ‘countering extremism’ training

Under the Biden administration, DoD has also launched a major initiative to keep violent extremists out of the armed forces. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a 60-day stand-down for military units to address the issue and established a “Countering Extremism Working Group.”

On Aug. 9, Austin signed out a new memo directing several immediate actions based on the group’s work, including an update to DoD’s definition of “extremism,” new training for service members on potential targeting for recruitment by extremism and updates to screening questions about current or previous extremist behavior.

New legislation would also back up the Pentagon’s initiative. During the House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the fiscal year 2022 defense authorization bill last week, lawmakers voted to adopt an amendment from Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) to formally establish an Office of Countering Extremism within the office of the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

The director of the office would lead the military’s efforts to root out extremism, including by updating insider threat training and education on how to recognize extremists within an organization, as well as how to know when a service member is being targeted by extremist
groups.

“The goal isn’t to prosecute and separate people for extremism,” Brown said. “The goal is to keep it out. So training and education for commanders, recruiters, ROTCs, service academies.”

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