South Asians aghast at Pentagon depiction of community

Washington, Aug 21 (IANS) South Asians in America have reacted with a sense of outrage at a US Defence Department online security training test that profiles a fictional Indian-American woman as a potential "high threat" and having "divided loyalty" just because she disagrees with US foreign policy.

One of the training slides created by the Defence Information Systems Agency (DISA) asks employees to consider a hypothetical "Hema" a "high threat" because she frequently visits family abroad, has money troubles and "speaks openly of unhappiness with US foreign policy.

"Based on statements, this employee demonstrates divided loyalty. Paired with her financial difficulties and foreign travel, she is a high threat," says the programme for Defence Department and other federal employees by way of explanation.

Versions of the "Cyber Awareness Challenge" are unclassified and available for anyone to play online. "Catch me if you can," the training dares.

And if you fail the test by not identifying Hema as a 'threat', as this IANS correspondent did, the fictional female spy calls back and says with a chuckle: "You were too slow. I'll think of that as I enjoy a drink on the beach."

Reacting to the offending programme after it was first reported by Huffington Post, editors from a South Asian news and culture website wrote "As you can imagine, reading that line caused all of us here in The Aerogram's headquarters to have a 'Hey! That sounds like me!' moment."

Noting that the Post article suggested that the training was designed to help catch future Bradley Mannings and Edward Snowdens, who are both white men, they wrote: "We think the training would have been much more true-to-life if Hema had been the child of a Welsh immigrant a la Manning."

Examining the slides, Aerogram editors said they "were struck by the fact that a character that regularly plays high-stakes poker was considered less of a threat than Hema, and that Hema's propensity of travel made her as much of a risk as a recently divorced man mired in debt who openly worries about paying child support."

"Hema's foreign travel, the slide notes, is a threat because it "gives foreign agents a chance to contact foreign intelligence services."

"For us, the strangest part of seeing someone like the fictional Hema classified as a high risk threat is that travelling internationally, exercising the rights to free speech and having political opinions are generally indicators of a well-rounded, actively involved citizen," they wrote.

"Couldn't the government use more inspired young people who know that the world is a big and complicated place? Why are these traits considered undesirable and threatening when the person possessing them is a South Asian American woman?" they asked.

A blog post on the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) forum cited Tanzila Ahmed, a Bangladeshi-American activist, as saying that the defence department "was fortunate to have South Asian Americans working in the federal government as it doesn't always treat the South Asian and Muslim community judicially."

The HuffPost described the Hema' slide as "a startling demonstration of the Obama administration's obsession with leakers and other 'insider threats'" and cited Steven Aftergood, an expert on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, as branding it "ignorant and clumsy".

Speaking openly of unhappiness with US foreign policy "is not a threat indicator", he wrote in an email to HuffPost.

"It could apply to most members of Congress, if not to most Americans. By presenting the matter this way, the slide suggests that overt dissent is a security concern. That is an error."

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at arun.kumar@ians.in)