By John Irvin
NOIR TEAM

It would no doubt be like a dream for a 62-year-old former government employee, prolific author, and recognized environmental expert to live out his retirement years on a warm tropical island with a new bride.

It would be like a nightmare to instead face a potential 50-year term in federal prison for attempting to steal and sell nuclear weapons-related information.  As the case of one disgruntled former employee shows, there is no expiration date on resentment or the desire for revenge.

For individuals and organizations there is a certain tendency to consider a problem out of sight and mind as a problem solved.  This isn’t to dismiss the many individuals who continue to agonize over an issue even after it has long since been overtaken by events, but it would seem the more common approach is to solve a problem more or less to one’s satisfaction and then to move on to the next pressing issue, letting the ostensibly “solved” problem fade from focus if not entirely from memory.

This is a perfectly understandable mindset for which humans can be forgiven, considering that for the overwhelming majority of our history virtually all mental and physical effort was, by necessity, dedicated to simply surviving from one day to the next.

It is worth remembering that it has only been a relative few centuries (a mere drop in the bucket of human evolution) in which most people have had the time, indeed the luxury, to engage in something we now take for granted – reflective thought.  Technological and social progress may have given us the time to think rationally, logically, and to consider the repercussions of our actions, but that all happens in a brain that evolved to focus on the more immediate and consequential issue of keeping the body that houses it alive.

This perhaps unconscious preference for decisively moving a problem from the “in” box to the “out” box (or, better yet, the trash can) and then to giving it little further thought works just fine most of the time.  It doesn’t work so well when those problems are based on human-to-human rather than impersonal issues.  It can be absolutely devastating when those problems relate to humans working in the national security realm.  As a recent case of alleged insider espionage demonstrates, it isn’t enough for the “problem” to leave the office, the organization, or even the country.  Sometimes problems don’t go away, especially when they go away mad.

The Eccleston Case

On 27 March, 2015, former Department of Energy (DoE) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) employee Charles Harvey Eccleston was detained by Philippine authorities and deported to the United States to face criminal charges.  Eccleston, 62 at the time, was eventually charged by the US Department of Justice with four criminal counts; attempted unauthorized access and attempted damage to a protected computer, attempted unauthorized access to a government computer to obtain information, attempted unauthorized access to a protected computer to defraud and obtain something of value, and wire fraud.[1]

Now sitting in a prison cell awaiting his day in court, Eccleston had begun a long career of government and contractor service back in 1983 as a software design engineer for Texas Instruments, working on “Top Secret DOD projects” according to information he included in his profile on the business website LinkedIn.  In 1988 he obtained a position with DoE as a scientist preparing environmental impact statements (EIS) at their Hanford Site in Washington State.  After thirteen years working at Hanford, Eccleston had established himself as an expert on EIS and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), authoring two books on the subject.

Eccleston stayed with DoE until 2001, and then moved on to various positions advising the US government on EIS and NEPA, as well as authoring or co-authoring several more books.  He held a Top Secret security clearance with Special Background Investigation and polygraph when in October 2010, he was fired from his position as a Facilities Security Specialist at the NRC due to “performance and conduct issues.”

While the exact nature of those issues is not readily available through open-source material, two things can reasonably be assumed.

First, Eccleston’s actions were apparently egregious enough in the view of NRC officials to warrant the termination of an individual with considerable expertise and 30 years of government service.

Second, based on his subsequent activities, he was quite displeased with his termination and held an enduring grudge against his former employer.

In May 2011, Eccleston left the United States and took up residence in Davao City, Philippines, where he met and married a local woman.  While living with his new wife as an expatriate US citizen in the Philippines, he reached back to criticize his former employer by publishing an article in the Autumn 2012 issue of the magazine Environmental Quality Management.[2]  In this article, entitled “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and NEPA Review”, he claimed NRC regulators had “failed to adequately evaluate the impact of serious nuclear accidents under the (NEPA)” and that NRC policy was biased towards continuing the operation of nuclear power plants in the face of a “growing body of evidence about the risks and hazards facing the country’s aging nuclear fleet.”

In February 2013, Eccleston sent an email to then-NRC Chairwoman Allison MacFarlane and other NRC commissioners, in which he claimed to have exposed the organization’s “deceptive and tainted license renewal process” in a book he published the previous year.[3]  Subsequent events suggest that shortly thereafter, sometime around April 2013, he decided to engage in activities against this previous employer that would not only go beyond simple sniping but might prove financially rewarding as well.

At that point Eccleston appears to have decided to graduate from disgruntled employee to insider spy.

Perhaps there was little demand for Eccleston’s somewhat arcane area of expertise in his new home, but it would seem his efforts to translate his years of government service into a lucrative private business were unsatisfactory, at least in his mind.  Apparently in need of money to support himself and his new wife, he developed a plan to use his previous access in order to sell classified information pilfered from his former employer.

According to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) press release, Eccleston entered a foreign embassy and offered to provide classified information, which he claimed had been taken from the U.S. government.[4]  Eccleston offered a list of over 5,000 email accounts of all officials, engineers, and employees of the NRC in exchange for $18,800.  He further claimed he could also obtain accurate engineering blueprints of U.S. nuclear reactors, but didn’t offer an asking price for that information.[5]

The (unidentified) foreign embassy brought this to the attention of US authorities and in October 2013 Eccleston met with individuals whom he believed to be representatives of the foreign country.  They were, in fact, undercover FBI agents.

Eccleston sold the agents 1,200 NRC email addresses for $5,000 and received an additional $2,000 for expenses.  In exchange for promised future payment, Eccleston offered to design and send “spear-phishing”[6] e-mails that could be used to damage DoE computer systems and extract sensitive, nuclear weapons-related information for passage to the foreign country.  A criminal affidavit reported that Eccleston may have planned to provide the nuclear secrets to China, Iran, and Venezuela as well.  The affidavit also reported that he claimed to have worked on two “highly classified, unnamed U.S. government programs” and would reveal details about them for $100,000.

The undercover FBI agents provided Eccleston with a phony computer virus and on or about 15 January, 2015, he attempted to send spear-phishing emails to over 80 DoE email addresses.  The emails were disguised as invitations to nuclear training and education conferences and included a link entitled “Conference Details and Registration.”  Clicking on the link would have then infected the computer with the malicious code he had been given, or so Eccleston believed.

According to the affidavit, Eccleston explained to the undercover agents that he couldn’t guarantee the success of his phishing attack, but stated he would be willing to continue attacking using various methods until the task was completed.  In an email to the supposed foreign government representatives he wrote, “Due to things that are occurring as we talk, in the newspaper, everybody is going back for retraining, and they are teaching people to be very careful … to be prudent, to be careful what they click on and for people to go in for retraining and I honestly don’t know (how) successful this will be.”  He added, “However, if it’s successful, then the project, we can try more projects.  If it’s not successful, I have more sophisticated ideas on how to do this.  So I have … if it doesn’t work well, I have several other ideas that I think will be much, much, more successful.”[7]

Eccleston would have no opportunity to engage in any further “projects.”  He now faces up to 50 years in federal prison.

NOIR and the Issue of the Disgruntled Employee

Eccleston serves as a timely example of a perennial problem for both private industry and those government organizations responsible for national security – the disgruntled employee who leaves an organization with knowledge of proprietary or classified information, some means of reaching back into the organization, and a grudge. 

The insider spy does not necessarily have to remain inside in order to do considerable damage.  Another example would be former-CIA officer Edward Lee Howard, who was fired by the Agency after a routine polygraph revealed he had lied about his drug use and may have had a history of petty theft.  Howard had been preparing for a posting to Moscow and had considerable knowledge of US intelligence activities in the Soviet Union.  A clearly disgruntled Howard eventually defected to the Soviets, but not before volunteering his services to the KGB.

Before moving on to the role a National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR) could play in addressing the issue of the disgruntled soon-to-be-ex-employee, let us touch on another issue raised by the Eccleston case.  According to the affidavit, it was his intention to pass on classified nuclear weapons-related information to at least one foreign nation.  Yet nothing in his history would suggest he had access to such information (his area of expertise was, after all, environmental impact statements).  He wasn’t even living in the US, much less working in the US government at the time of his attempted espionage.   It would appear that his value to a hostile intelligence service lay not so much in knowing the information as much as his knowing the system.

Eccleston sought to exploit his knowledge of the DoE’s email system in order to trick specific employees into unwittingly providing the information his handlers sought.  Such an indirect method of accessing information certainly isn’t unique to the computer era, although electronic access and storage of information does present unique vulnerabilities.  The East German Stasi made a dedicated effort during the Cold War to recruit the secretaries of West German officials, understanding that it didn’t matter whether the secretaries knew what was in the file as long as they had the keys to the filing cabinet.

Clearly, it isn’t enough simply to take away a former employee’s computer access when that person is creative enough to otherwise exploit his or her knowledge of the system.  Eccleston had worked in DoE and NRC for decades, had a list of email addresses, had an informed opinion of who might have access to information that would be of interest to his foreign contacts (actually, undercover FBI agents), knew what an innocuous email that might elicit a click should look like, and, in the event the first email didn’t work, had “several other ideas” that he thought would be “much, much, more successful.”

The Outplacement Service of Last Resort

Dr. Charney’s concept of a NOIR includes the role it could play as an outplacement service for disgruntled employees.  While much of the NOIR White Paper deals with employing the psychology of insider spies in order to counter their activities while they still serve in national security positions, it also applies to those who have left, particularly those who may have been escorted out the door by security officers or on otherwise less-than-pleasant terms.  The core psychology of the insider spy – an intolerable sense of personal failure, as privately defined by that person[8] – applies on the outside as well as the inside.

Certainly, losing one’s job can be emotionally devastating and lead to a profound sense of personal failure.  In his book Make Job Loss Work for You, Richard S. Deems, Ph.D., suggests that those who lose a job may cycle through a series of six emotions:

  1. Shock and Disbelief
  2. Anger & Resentment
  3. Denial & Bargaining
  4. Self-doubt & Put-downs
  5. Withdrawal & Depression
  6. and eventually Acceptance & Affirmation

Whether a particular individual successfully reaches a state of Acceptance & Affirmation or becomes fixated at any one stage is largely dependent on his or her own unique personality.  Deems suggests some may vacillate between stages or have “flashbacks” to Anger months after the loss.[9]

It is also worth remembering that all action springs from the subjective perception of the individual.  The disgruntled employee, perhaps fixated in what Deems would consider the Anger & Resentment stage, will act based on his or her perception of having been wronged by the former employer.  In this sense, it doesn’t matter whether NRC was objectively, rationally, or legally justified in firing Eccleston.

Just as in the case of Howard, what mattered in the practical sense was his perception that he was ill-treated and the resentment it bred, resentment that eventually drove him to take action against his former employer.  In the intensely self-referential world of disgruntled employees like Eccleston and Howard, it probably didn’t matter that he was, in the process, also taking action against his country and fellow-citizens.

Outplacement services have existed in the business realm since at least the 1980s.  Initially a response to an increase in what came to be known as “downsizing” or “rightsizing,” businesses acknowledged the psychological impact on both those who lost their jobs and those who remained and created formal systems to ease the transition out of the company and to provide assistance in seeking other employment, or hired external outplacement service companies to do the same.  Certainly one component of outplacement is an effort to minimize the threat that a disgruntled ex-employee might pose to the reputation, operations, or even the physical security of the former employer.

That a NOIR might be uniquely suited to perform this function for intelligence community (IC) organizations first occurred to Dr. Charney during a conversation with Judge William Webster, former FBI Director and former Director of Central Intelligence, and the only person who has ever served in both positions.  After Dr. Charney briefed him on the reconciliation[10] role of a NOIR, Judge Webster mentioned that the proposed NOIR mechanisms might be useful for managing what were some of his most difficult problems – the so-called “hot potatoes.”  A percentage of these problem employees were not salvageable and the challenge was to find a means to exit them gracefully without pushing them over the edge.[11]  In the case of IC employees, that would be over the edge and possibly into the arms of those hostile to US national security interests.

One of the most significant benefits of having a NOIR perform the outplacement role is quite simply that it is not the out-going employee’s home organization.  Again, from a security perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the home organization was in fact justified in firing the employee so much as the employee’s perception of whether or not it was justified.  The disgruntled employee is likely to view any outplacement effort on the part of the home organization more with resentment than appreciation, as an insincere “Band-Aid” applied to the gaping wound the organization itself created.

In a NOIR scenario, the problem employee would be informed of his or her impending termination and as expeditiously as practical turned over to a representative of the NOIR.  All out-processing, training, and counseling would be performed by NOIR personnel in NOIR locations and the ex-employee need never return to the hated former organization.  The NOIR case worker would likely be perceived as more sympathetic to the plight of the out-going employee, while at the same time the NOIR case worker would be particularly attuned to the psychological and behavioral “flags” that would suggest a disgruntled employee may be inclined to act out his or her resentment in a vengeful manner.

To reiterate, as far as the NOIR is concerned, whether the out-going employee is “guilty” or not is almost irrelevant.  The role of the NOIR is to reduce the incidence of insider espionage through an understanding of the psychology of those who betray their peers, their agency, and their country.  A NOIR would be in a unique position to methodically deal with the potential threat posed by those insiders who become outsiders but retain their ability to do serious damage to national security.  Engaging the NOIR would be a proactive measure based on psychology rather than a reactive measure based on law enforcement.  Furthermore, the NOIR would stand separate and disinterested from parochial issues within the out-going employees own organization.  It would be better positioned to be seen as an “honest broker” in the mind of the out-going employee.

The disgruntled former employee who “goes postal” and causes loss of life is a crime and a tragedy.  The disgruntled employee who acts to undermine US national security may not kill anyone with his or her own hands, but may place an entire country and the lives of millions at risk (as in the alleged case of Eccleston, by offering to provide a hostile country with classified nuclear weapons-related information).  This isn’t to say problem employees in the IC or elsewhere should be coddled or simply tolerated because of the risk that they may become disgruntled.  Quite the opposite; for the sake of national security they should be quickly and decisively moved on to other, less sensitive fields of endeavor.

When that happens, however, it should be done with recognition of the damage even an “outsider” may still be able to accomplish.  The core psychology of the insider spy still applies even when he or she is no longer inside.  The benefits of having a NOIR that encompasses the role of outplacement service of last resort are many.

As the Eccleston, Howard, and other cases demonstrate, the problem isn’t always solved when the problem employee goes away.

Especially when they go away mad.

—-

Footnotes

[1] http://www.justice.gov/file/eccleston-indictment/download

[2] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tqem.21316/abstract

[3] This may have been Preparing NEPA Environmental Assessments: A User’s Guide to Best Professional Practices

(CRC Press, 2012), which Eccleston co-authored with J. Peyton Doub, although the book only makes one direct reference to the NRC (pg. 11) that does not appear in line with Eccleston’s accusation.

[4] http://www.fbi.gov/washingtondc/press-releases/2015/former-u.s.-nuclear-regulatory-commission-employee-charged-with-attempted-spear-phishing-cyber-attack-on-department-of-energy-computers

[5] http://enformable.com/2015/05/former-nrc-employee-indicted-after-attempting-to-sell-nuclear-secrets-and-launch-cyber-attack/

[6] A spear-phishing attack involves the creation of an email from a trusted source which convinces select recipients to open it, after which the computer of the receiver is infected with a virus.

[7] http://enformable.com/2015/05/former-nrc-employee-indicted-after-attempting-to-sell-nuclear-secrets-and-launch-cyber-attack/

[8] https://noir4usa.org/resources/true-psychology-of-insider-spy/

[9] http://www.outplacing.com/emotion-normal/

[10] See page 13 of NOIR: A White Paper for a more thorough discussion of the concept of reconciliation.

[11] No claim is made here that Judge Webster supports NOIR, in whole or in part, but Dr. Charney does credit Judge Webster for suggesting this added functionality for NOIR.

 

What do you think?