Unauthorized Disclosure: Can Behavioral Indicators Help Predict Who Will Commit Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified National Security Information

pdfKaren Elizabeth Sims


Federal government security-cleared personnel have been disclosing federal government

classified national security information, whether to a foreign government or the United

States media, at an increasing rate since the 1980s. Can common personal or

psychological characteristics or motivations be identified from historical cases that could

indicate the likelihood of a current or potential federal employee to disclose national

security information without authorization? Executive Order 13526, Classified National

Security Information, states, “National defense has required that certain information be

maintained in confidence in order to protect our citizens, our democratic institutions, our

homeland security and our interactions with foreign nations.”1 In order to access

classified national security information, an individual must have a “need-to-know,” or the

need to have access to information to perform official duties. If it is determined he/she

has a need to know, that person must undergo a background investigation to determine

loyalty, trustworthiness, and reliability, as well as sign U.S. Government Standard Form

312, Classified Information Nondisclosure Agreement. Recent unauthorized disclosures

of classified information have caused outrage on Capitol Hill and eroded the American

peoples’ confidence in the security clearance process. While such recent disclosures by

Edward Snowden and Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning highlight recent incidents,

there is a history of unauthorized disclosure of classified information going back to our

nation’s very beginning.

Why do people disclose information with which they have been entrusted?

Reasons for unauthorized disclosure range from financial, to “whistle-blowing,” to a

desire to change international policy, to sympathy and strong ties with a foreign

government. The focus of this research is on the behavioral characteristics that are similar

or different between known, studied historical cases of personnel associated with the

federal government who have disclosed classified information without authorization.

Cases studied include Aldrich Ames, Ana Belen Montes, Chelsea (Bradley) Manning,

Brian Regan, Bryan Underwood, Greg William Bergersen, Hassan Abu-Jihaad (Paul R.

Hall), Robert Hanssen, John Walker, Jonathon Pollard and Edward Snowden. Selection is

based on unauthorized disclosure since the 1980s, including 1985—referred to as the

“year of the spy.”

Upon review of existing data, the prevalent behavioral characteristic of the cases

(10 out of 11 cases) is one of a disgruntled employee (ideology/disillusionment/loyalty).

A disgruntled employee becomes the largest concern of insider threat, one who is willing

to compromise his or her feelings of loyalty to the organization and the nation for a

myriad of reasons. While personal security background investigations review information

from the present to up to 10 years prior,

Studies of espionage based on personal interviews with offenders suggest

a pattern in which personal disruptions or crises precede, or “trigger,” an

individual’s decision to commit espionage. Crises could be positive or

negative, and include divorce, death, starting a new relationship, or

exhibiting radically changed behavior. Commentators have speculated that

if help or timely intervention had been offered in these cases, the crime

might have been averted.2

Thus, assessing the quality of a person’s moral development at an early life

stage may be irrelevant to the context of later action when unforeseen

events create a condition of personal strain for which trust violation would

be a possible resolution.3

There is no way to determine how many potential spies or persons bent on

disclosing classified information were eliminated through the vetting of data collected

during the initial security clearance request process. What is depicted in this thesis is the

result of employees who passed the screening process and were fully trusted to perform

their duties. The conclusion to be drawn from this is two-fold. First, first- and second-line

managers of employees who have access to classified information must be keenly aware

of any changes in the personality of their employees. They must go beyond simply giving

work assignments and grading results. They have to be able to read slight changes in

attitude, performance, personality, and be prepared to make tough decisions about taking

positive action when nuances, however slight, are detected. Because intellect and ego

play an important part in employee performance, the manager must be trained to deal

with employees whose behavior is outside the norm in those regards. Second, managers

must, on a regular basis, encourage all employees to be mindful of personality or lifestyle

changes of fellow employees and provide a protected avenue for them to discuss fellow

employee behavior. “See something, say something” is a phrase that belongs in the work

place and applies to both personality and material things. Recognizing and dealing with

disgruntled employees might just prevent or mitigate unauthorized disclosure.

Disgruntlement leads to changes in ideology, disillusionment with one’s organization,

and ultimately may change national loyalty; the predominant factors of which supervisors

must be aware.

A continuing evaluation system fits hand in glove with managerial awareness of

and peer recognition of behavioral or drastic character changes in employees. Formally,

there is nothing between the initial screening process and a periodic review (after five or

10 years depending on the classification level). A continuing evaluation system would

retrieve real-time data from a variety of sources to determine those employees whose

lifestyle or behavior might have changed.

Finally, the government must institute a process of routinely reviewing classified

positions to determine those positions that no longer have security clearances required.

The fewer classified positions, the fewer employees have access to classified information.

That lessens the opportunity for unauthorized disclosure and drastically reduces the strain

on the entire security clearance process.


1 Exec. Order No. 13526, 75 Fed. Reg. 2 (Jan. 5, 2010), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-pressoffice/executive-order-classified-national-security-information, 707.

2 Katherine L. Herbig, Changes in Espionage by Americans: 1947–2007, Department of Defense Technical Report 08–05 (Monterey, CA: Defense Personnel Security Research Center, 2008), http://www.dhra.mil/perserec/reports/tr08-05.pdf, xi.

3 Theodore R. Sarbin, Ralph M. Carney, and Carson Eoyang, eds. Citizen Espionage: Studies in Trust and Betrayal (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), 119.


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