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A Crisis of Leadership at the Military Intelligence Agency’s Watchdog Office
Since two whistleblowers stepped forward two years ago, morale at the Defense Intelligence Agency Office of the Inspector General has plummeted.
Sitting in the lobby of a hotel near the Pentagon’s intelligence agency headquarters, David Steele, a nearly 40-year military and intelligence veteran, took out a list of the members of the unit he once led and highlighted name after name until it was nearly all bright yellow.
They were the names of people who’ve left their jobs at the Defense Intelligence Agency, or who have been trying to find new ones in the last two years. Almost everyone who once worked for Steele in the Office of the Inspector General has fled the agency, or is looking to leave, an exodus he attributes to the toxic atmosphere created by the official in charge.
“They’re all fleeing like rats,” Ron Foster, former head of investigations at the intelligence agency’s Inspector General’s Office, told Foreign Policy during the same interview. Foster, also a longtime military and intelligence employee, with experience in the FBI, said investigations and law enforcement are his bread and butter. He brought to the meeting a carefully wrapped stack of gold medals in wooden frames, awards he’s received for outstanding service.
Both Steele and Foster said Kristi Waschull, the inspector general of the Defense Intelligence Agency and a former manager at the human resources department at the DIA, repeatedly asked him and his team to soften language in inspection and investigative reports about problems and crimes within the agency, lied, stanched the flow of published reports, and retaliated against them and several colleagues when they challenged her ability to conduct independent investigations of agency management.
Waschull did not respond directly to a request for comment. The Defense Intelligence Agency, through its press office, declined to answer specific questions but denied any wrongdoing in the Inspector General’s Office.
“The DIA IG office has a long-established record of distinguished service,” James Kudla, a DIA spokesperson, told FP.
Steele and Foster can’t discuss some of the details of their investigations and inspections, because that information is classified. But they were cleared to discuss the broad strokes of their ongoing saga.
Foster and Steele were fired, or involuntarily reassigned, along with the staff director on the same day with no warning, according to descriptions and emails provided to FP. Now, Waschull’s employees live in perpetual fear that if they cross her, they could be next, Steele and Foster said, after having spoken with a number of current and former employees.
Waschull has come up with different reasons, like career opportunity and poor performance, for why she forced Steele and Foster out. They have meticulously documented her allegations and why she is wrong, they said.
Yet their complaints have languished for over two years now, and in the meantime, no one is policing the Defense Intelligence Agency.
“There is no oversight,” Steele continued. Whistleblower protection laws “assume the [inspectors general] are the good guys. What happens when your inspector general is a bad guy?”
Kristi Waschull, who Foster said inspires fear among personnel, rose in the Defense Intelligence Agency over the years to become the deputy director for human capital in 2010 — though Foster said she was removed from that position and shuttled over to the FBI before returning to lead the Inspector General’s Office in the summer of 2014.
The DIA inspector general is not a presidentially appointed position, and thus not subject to a confirmation hearing.
Waschull was entering an office that was host to investigators who’d written negative reports about her performance — including Ron Foster. In 2011 and 2012, the inspector general had investigated her former directorate, the Office of Human Capital. She was already predisposed to treat her own employees as adversaries.
According to Steele and Foster, Waschull never attended the training course provided for inspector general-related work.
Over the next year, Foster and Steele noticed Waschull would often question investigation results and tell them to alter the wording of reports that contained criticism of agency officials. Steele, who came up in the Air Force before spending 17 years at the Inspector General’s Office, recalled Waschull telling him she didn’t want to “poke DIA management in the eye.”
In one program his team reviewed, they found “pretty much incompetence,” Steele said. Waschull forced them to change it. “We really whitewashed that,” he said.
Foster said Waschull repeatedly interfered with an investigation that dealt with her former mentor, a DIA official. According to filed descriptions of his complaints, she also worked to find a job for a DIA employee whose spouse was going overseas, which goes against agency policy.
Then, in August 2015, Waschull sent identical emails to Steele, Foster, and Gary Hill, a staff director at DIA, asking to meet with them individually. In those meetings, she said each had been performing excellently, but she wanted to rotate them out of their positions.
Steele was permanently reassigned to another department in DIA in 2016, while Foster still plans to return to the IG’s office — though he expects he’ll meet resistance. “She wiped out over 40 years of inspector general experience before lunch,” Steele said.
An official familiar with the matter said Waschull was acting within her rights to reassign personnel in order to achieve her goals for the office, to become “more strategic,” though the official did not elaborate on what those reasons or goals were. “The intention was not to harm the individuals,” said the official, who asked that their name not be used.
Both men have lodged a series of complaints with different offices, starting with the Office of Human Resources, where each filed a discrimination complaint; news of that complaint was leaked to Waschull within days. They ultimately escalated the disclosures to the Department of Defense Inspector General, where it has stalled, and the Intelligence Community Inspector General, which is responsible for acting as an objective third party in cases of potential retaliation across the intelligence community.
Some of the disclosures have made it to Congress.
While the Intelligence Community Inspector General was originally responsive to Steele, that office has gone through its own turmoil in recent months. The official in charge of whistleblowing at that office, Dan Meyer, has since been suspended pending investigation, as FP previously reported.
“Ever since they neutered Dan Meyer, the program is ineffective,” Steele said.
The DIA Inspector General’s Office, while declining to elaborate on privileged personnel information and matters still under review, told FP the issue was resolved last year, when employee complaints were referred to a body known as the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.
“After reviewing the allegations,” and DIA’s written response to them, Kudla said, it determined that the inspector general had “sufficiently addressed the allegations” and “closed the complaint without further action” in March 2016.
However, according to Foster and Steele, the council did not investigate the matter because it said it did not have jurisdiction over intelligence retaliation complaints, and the council never actually spoke to Foster or Steele.
“How are you going to close [the investigation] by talking to the subject and no one else? Where’s the report?” Foster told FP.
Waschull is a member of the council on the training committee.
On Tuesday, Steele was told the complaint had been forwarded to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The Defense Department Inspector General declined to comment, while the Intelligence Community Inspector General did not respond to request for comment.
According to Steele, the negative atmosphere has led to a real crisis in confidence of Waschull’s capabilities. In 2016, the agency didn’t publish the results of any new investigations, and if the systemic issues remain unaddressed or ignored by the agency, it could lead to an intelligence community-wide “vulnerability,” Steele told FP.
The inspector general serves a critical role, Steele argues. “We’re the consciousness of the agency, we’re independent,” he said. “We have no dog in this fight.”
As the office stands now, however, it’s not performing that role effectively.
“The inspector general is incapable of policing itself,” he said. “Who’s watching the watchers?”