OMB’s Misguided Leak Prevention Plan

In a January 10 article, FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley and Linda Lewis examine the Obama administration’s recent memo ordering government agencies to have psychiatrists and sociologists monitor federal employees for evidence of unhappiness.  The order presumes that mood is a reliable predictor of  untrustworthiness to handle sensitive information.  In fact, psychiatric evaluations are a poor predictor of truthworthiness. 

The article,  “OMB Orders Government Agencies to Monitor Disgruntled Employees — What’s Next?” (Huffington Post), quotes Dr. Donald Soeken, psychologist and President of the Whistleblower Support Center and Archive (WSCA).

Since January 1984 the government-forced psychiatric fitness for duty exam is not even legal to use as a tool to evaluate the mental health of most federal employees. For individuals with security clearances, the government still uses the exam. The basic problem is not the exam itself, but that it is unethical to use it when an individual is being forced to take the exam.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, and social workers who perform the exam are committing malpractice because their ethics code requires them to “do no harm.” The doctor-patient relationship does apply when a government employee talks to a psychological evaluator and it is unethical to perform such an exam if the information is later divulged without the release of information. If the information is released, the personnel office of the agency can then use the exam in any way that they are being told to use it.

In my experience, the forced exam is usually given to persons who are whistleblowers, have a personality clash with their manager, or anyone else that management determines is a problem. Anyone required to take such an exam should refuse with their lawyer’s intervention. If all attempts to stop the exam fail, then the employee should have his/her lawyer or a licensed psychotherapist present at the exam. In the exams that I have attended, I have informed the evaluator that he or she is committing malpractice and most then do not complete the exam.

These exams are like the old Soviet style psychiatry and all past congressional hearings since 1978 have found them to be of little value and have indicated they should not be performed on government employees. One psychologist who worked at NSA told me that the exams can not determine who is a potential government spy. Other methods are more effective for that purpose whereas the forced psychiatrist fitness for duty exam is of no value in determining who might give information to a foreign government. I concur. Such exams would be of no utility in determining who might go to the press to expose waste, fraud, or abuse of power. These exams are permanently harmful to the mental health of the individuals who take them.

Rowley and Lewis point out that successful CIA spies would not have been caught using the “happiness” test.  However, psychiatric exams have been used, rather successfully, as end runs around laws created to protect civil service employees, whistleblowers, and minorities from discrimination and retaliation.

The most effective measures for keeping secrets safe have known for some time:  keep the number of secrets small; limit the number of people with access to those with a clear need to know; and provide physical controls that restrict access and sharing to authorized parties.  Unfortunately, the opposite has been true:  a massive explosion of secrets, security clearances, and file sharing. Focusing attention there will be much more effective than any measure of employee grumpiness.