How to Precognize a Snowden

Kristoffer Tripplaar

Since psych evaluations violate privacy rules, the FBI might turn to a whole new science.

The fictional FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit depicted on the TV series Criminal Minds has a real-life bureau counterpart that looks inward to anticipate the next internal crime. The FBI's insider threat program profiles the profilers to stop Edward Snowdens and Robert Hanssens in the making. 

Psychological analysis, or even clinical diagnosis, of employees is a no-no. So FBI officials say they might invent a whole new science to spot the next intelligence contractor planning to expose domestic surveillance programs or FBI agent who intends to sell American secrets to Moscow.

"A lot of the psych evaluations are considered medical so they are protected under HIPAA laws and that’s proved a huge barrier," FBI insider threat analyst Kate Randal said, referring to the privacy law formally known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

"In an ideal world, we would like to have clinical psychologists conduct tests on our employees and then take that information because it’s validated and it’s tested. That’s not really a feasible option,” she said at a conference organized by Nextgov on Thursday.

Randal was discussing her professional experiences inside the bureau and with other specialists in the internal security industry, not speaking on behalf of the FBI. 

To get around the taboos, her field has been toying with the idea of creating a questionnaire for supervisors geared at eliciting descriptions of behaviors, rather than clinical diagnoses. The reporting form, for example, would not ask whether a person is "narcissistic," which is the adjective form of the medical disorder “narcissism.”  Instead, it would ask about behavioral manifestations, such as, "Has the employee ever acted argumentative or abrasive in the workplace? What are the employee's interactions like with coworkers?"

This way, a supervisor isn't providing a psychological opinion of an employee. 

"You’re taking out the clinical aspect. You’re taking out any type of sensitivities of personality or psychology. You’re solely just linking how a person acts to what that might possibly mean," Randal said.