NSA Apparently Missed/Overlooked ‘Big Red Flags’ With Respect To Contractor Harold Martin’s Personal Behavior And Background; But, Ferreting Out A Potential Mole/Security Risk Is Complicated & Has Its Own Downside
Scott Shane, and Joe Becker write in the October 29, 2016, online edition of The New York Times, that the National Security Agency (NSA) apparently — either willfully overlooked former Booz Allen contractor Harold T. Martin III’s personal transgressions; or, did not consider them of sufficient concern to impact his suitability to maintain a Top Secret security clearance. Mr. Shane, and Mr. Becker write that “Mr. Martin got, and kept a Top Secret security clearance, despite a record that included drinking problems, a drunken driving arrest, two divorces, unpaid tax bills, a charge of computer harassment; and a bizarre episode in which he posed as a police officer in a traffic dispute. Under [security] clearance rules, such events should have triggered closer scrutiny by the security agencies where he worked as a contractor,” they write.
In the aftermath of the Wikileaks debacle in 2010, and Edward Snowden’s decision in 2013 to steal millions of highly classified sources and methods used by NSA to penetrate foreign targets and later, parade them to the world, one would have expected the agency to close ranks and do some soul searching with respect to protecting our most precious secrets from being stolen and/or compromised. “Yet,” Mr. Shane and Mr. Becker write, “Mr. Martin was able to walk out of NSA with highly classified material — adding it to the jumbled piles in his house, shed, and car.”
Federal prosecutors have described Mr. Martin’s theft as “breathtaking;” but thus far, have no evidence, nor indication that Mr. Martin sought out foreign entities/spies in order to sell his material to the highest bidder.
The Wikileaks incident, and the Edward Snowden theft, has led to a refocus on the number of government security clearances– some 3.1 million — and 900,000 contractors; as well as how background checks are conducted, and security clearances granted and/or, renewed. Mr. Shane and Mr. Becker write that the Martin case “appears to show a serious breakdown in personnel evaluation, as well as the technology designed to detect the leaks, and the basic job of inspecting people leaving secure buildings.”
ADM. (Ret.) Dennis C. Blair, former Director of National Intelligence, told the New York Times, he was “shocked” that Mr Martin managed to remove classified material in bulk as recently as this year, in part because the [U.S.] government has spent tens of millions of dollars since 2010 on measures to prevent unauthorized activity, or downloads. “If there were breakdowns in your security system, as there clearly was with Snowden, and this guy, you have to look at whatever went wrong and fix it,” ADM. Blair said. But, other senior officials were not so critical of missed red flags and warning signs that NSA should have seen. William R. Evanina, the government’s top counterintelligence official; and, the man charged with preventing another Edward Snowden from emerging — told the New York Times that “it may be infeasible to prevent every [security] breach at an agency like the NSA, with 35,000 employees.” “I don’t think it is possible,” Mr. Evanina told the paper. Mr. Evanina “credited the government with doing an “amazing job,” in tightening the security, and called NSA “one of the leaders” “Despite such efforts,” he added, “if someone is intent on stealing classified data — it is very hard to stop them [beforehand, if they can pass a polygraph, and cover their physical/digital tracks — to the extent it can be done].”
“You don’t want to create a Stasi-like atmosphere,” said Gen. (ret.) Michael Hayden, a former NSA, and CIA Director. Instead, NSA guards perform random searches — which sometimes include the Director of the agency, Gen. Hayden added.
“Several former NSA personnel told the New York Times that “if Mr. Martin were ever caught with a few classified pages, he could have pleaded absent-mindedness and escaped punishment,” Mr. Shane and Mr. Becker wrote. But, FBI agents ‘found 50 terabytes of data at Mr. Martin’s home — on disks, hard drives, and thumb drives.” had any of those things been found on his person as he was leaving the building/facility — that obviously would have triggered a major security, and counterintelligence investigation.
But, Mr Shane and Mr. Becker write, “a look at Mr. Martin’s past, should have raised some warning flags; and, perhaps drawn more scrutiny. Did his erratic behavior ever prompt a review of his Top Secret clearance; which allowed him to work on some of the nation’s most sensitive intelligence operations over two decades; and, at eight [different] contractors? His personal, and legal troubles reads like it might have been drawn from the official list of factors that can be used to deny a clearance.” they noted.
“In 2008,” the New York Times reported, “the state of Maryland put an $8,997 lien on Mr. Martin’s property for unpaid taxes that he would not off until 2014, a sign of chronic financial difficulties. In 2003, he was charged with misdemeanor computer harassment, a result of pestering a woman with unwanted messages. The charge was e eventually dismissed,” the paper reported.
In the aftermath of Mr. Martin’s arrest, the government contractor where he worked — Booz Allen Allen, the same firm where NSA contractor Edward Snowden worked — announced they had hired former FBI Director Robert Muller to “review its security and management practices,” and oversight. Meanwhile, Senator Diane Feinstein, the Vice Chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, stated publicly last week that she “expected the committee to examine the Martin case — both to review whether recent security upgrades at NSA [implemented after the Snowden affair], were sufficient; and, consider further improvements.”
There has also been some discussion on Capital Hill regarding whether the investigative process for conducting background checks regarding security clearances — needs to be brought back in-house, as an inherently governmental function and responsibility. The majority of security clearance investigations are currently conducted by private contractors, on behalf of the U.S. government.
Balancing The Need To Surveil The Intelligence Workforce To Prevent A Serious Breach — Versus The Importance Of Not Being To Overly Intrusive And Oppressive — Thus Creating A Destructive/Toxic Work Environment
The bottom line is, as long as humans are involved, or in the chain of custody of highly classified documents, there will always be the insider threat that can do so much damage to the enterprise. There is no such thing as ‘complete’ security. New, enhanced tools like meta-data tagging, and patterns of life algorithms and data scanning were conceived, in most cases — long before the Snowden case arose. But, advancements in these technologies have supercharged those tools/techniques to a point where they can be utilized and can greatly assist counterintelligence efforts to ferret out and discover potential Edward Snowden’s, and Harold Martin’s. But, these efforts and techniques must be done — to the largest extent possible — in the shadows and behind the curtain. Otherwise, a toxic work atmosphere can arise, which can cripple all other activities — except the quest to expose spies and traitors on the inside.
James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s head of Counterintelligence during the Cold War, nearly destroyed the agency he was trying to protect; because of his obsessive quest to ferret out moles and traitors within his midst. One can understand Angleton’s fear of a serious mole within his midst, after his friend and to some degree mentor Kim Philby of the British Secret Intelligence Service/MI6 turned out to be the head of a Cambridge spy ring who were all working for Soviet intelligence.
In the aftermath of the Philby affair, Angleton went on the warpath, some say a witch hunt, a destructive and ‘radioactive’ hunt for moles within the agency, that destroyed many an innocent careerist and for all practical purposes — paralyzed the agency. Angleton was eventually forced into retirement because the agency he so wanted to protect — was collapsing because of his insatiable belief that the agency was penetrated by a high-level Soviet mole/s. At his memorial service in May 1987, the poet Reed Whittemore recited T.S. Elliott’s “Gerontion,” in which the mind of a blind old man, becomes hopelessly lost in a ‘wilderness of mirrors.”
Tim Weiner, writing in the February 27, 1994 New York Times about the then recent arrest of CIA officer Aldrich Ames, referred back to James Angleton’s search for the ever elusive Soviet mole. Mr. Weiner writes that “after Angleton was forced to retire in 1975, post-mortems’ of his 20 year reign found his endless, fruitless search for the elusive mole had all but destroyed the CIA’s counterintelligence operations against the Soviet Union. Careers were ruined, and covert operations against the Soviet Union, were paralyzed. Mr. Angleton could not have done more damage — if he himself had been the mole, his detractors said.”
“Very little was going on in the counterintelligence staff from the late 60’s, through the late 70’s,” said a senior CIA officer from that era, a man who knew Mr. Angleton and the counterintelligence business as well as they could be known,” Mr. Weiner wrote. “In Angleton’s last decade or so, they were looking for things they couldn’t find — because they didn’t exist,” this officer said. “What was left, was the damage he had done to individuals, and the damage he had done to the effort against the Soviets. It took years to recover.”
The point to all this is of course — the requirement to balance the need to ferret out spies, traitors, and others who deliberately put us all at risk, when they decide to either sell secrets that they have illegally purloined, or deliberately publish them regardless of the damage that is done — versus going too far in the pursuit of potential moles, spies, etc. to the point Mr. Angleton did — with the end result, a paralyzed, paranoid workforce, too afraid to carry out its precious missions, because they cannot navigate out of this wilderness of mirrors.
Counterintelligence is a delicate process, that requires exquisite, careful, and elegant execution, and a delicate touch, in order not to create a kind of toxic paranoia that in the end — does more harm than good. The Congressional committees and others involved in the post-mortem review of the Harold Martin affair, would be wise to keep the above in mind. V/R, RCP