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Insider threatInsider threats, organizational rigidity pose challenges for U.S. national security: Study

Published 10 September 2015

U.S. national security faces rising challenges from insider threats and organizational rigidity, a Stanford professor says. A new study says that in the past five years, seemingly trustworthy U.S. military and intelligence insiders have been responsible for a number of national security incidents, including the WikiLeaks publications and the 2009 attack at Fort Hood in Texas that killed 13 and injured more than 30. The study’s author acknowledges the difficulties of learning lessons from tragedies like 9/11, the NASA space shuttle accidents, and the 2009 Fort Hood shooting. She notes that policymakers tend to attribute failure to people and policies. While seemingly hidden at times, the organizational roots of disaster are much more important than many think, she added.

U.S. national security faces rising challenges from insider threats and organizational rigidity, a Stanford professor says.

Amy Zegart, co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote in a new study that in the past five years, seemingly trustworthy U.S. military and intelligence insiders have been responsible for a number of national security incidents, including the WikiLeaks publications and the 2009 attack at Fort Hood in Texas that killed 13 and injured more than 30.

She defines “insider threats” as people who use their authorized access to do harm to the security of the United States. They could range from mentally ill people to “coldly calculating officials” who betray critical national security secrets.

In her research, which relies upon declassified investigations by the U.S. military, FBI, and Congress, Zegart analyzes the Fort Hood attack and one facet of the insider threat universe — Islamist terrorists.

In this case, a self-radicalized Army psychiatrist named Nidal Hasan walked into a Fort Hood facility in 2009 and fired 200 rounds, killing 13 people and wounding dozens of others. The shooting spree remains the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 and the worst mass murder at a military site in American history, she added.

Insights and lessons learned
A Stanford University release reports that Zegart’s study of insider and surprise attacks as well as academic research into the theory of organizations led her to some key insights about why the Army failed to prevent Hasan’s attack when clues were clear:

Routines can create hidden hazards. People in bureaucracies tend to continue doing things the same old way, even when they should not, Zegart said, and not just in America. In the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, for example, U.S. spy planes were able to spot Soviet missile installations in Cuba because the Soviets had built them exactly like they always had in the Soviet Union — without camouflage.

In the Fort Hood case, she said, bureaucratic procedures kept red flags about Hasan in different places, making them harder to detect.

Career incentives and organizational cultures often backfire. As Zegart wrote, several researchers found that “misaligned incentives and cultures” played major roles in undermining safety before the Challengerspace shuttle disaster.