Unfortunately, this is one of the many challenges faced by security professionals and leaders in many organizations.
This particular problem tends to surface quite often: The employee violating the USB security policy is also a highly valued member of the organization, due to his or her expertise or experience, and would be difficult to readily replace.
One approach you may want to try –- something I've done in the past when trying to get support from management –- is to speak to your immediate manager (CIO, CFO or security director) and let him or her know of your concern about the short- and long-term implications. In this discussion, try to avoid being too emotional; using of the word "dire" may be too extreme, but you need to make a point that the decision may not be in the best interest of the company, as other employees could see this as an implication that certain rules won't be enforced.
Secondly, I would suggest that management consider putting a letter in the employee's human resources file stating that he/she was caught violating corporate policy (date, time, witnesses, etc.), and he/she received a warning of some sort, preferably documented.
Thirdly, such an incident may serve as an opportunity to launch an internal awareness campaign (e.g., broadcast email, posters, etc.) reminding all employees that data protection is important to everyone -- employees, customers, vendors and the corporation overall -- with the intent of preventing this from happening again.
In your campaign, however, I'd suggest not citing any rules about "punishment up to and including termination," or, due to the recent event, the message could be seen as not credible by many of the more skeptical employees.
Lastly, I have maintained a "Cover Your Alternatives" (CYA) file, in which I would put a summary document of the event, my conversation with my supervisor, actions taken to prevent the recurrence, etc. Then, should there be future analysis or reviews, the CYA file has a history of actions and data that may be useful to demonstrate effective management of the event.
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