Lawmakers Demand Investigation Into Lack of Whistleblower Protections for Spies

Senate leaders across party lines are concerned intelligence community watchdogs are failing to protect whistleblowers.

Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and ranking member Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA)  of the Senate Intelligence Committee listen to testimony from Intelligence officials in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on June 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and ranking member Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) of the Senate Intelligence Committee listen to testimony from Intelligence officials in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on June 7, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Four U.S. senators who oversee intelligence and national security have called for a review of whistleblower protections for the intelligence community, warning that “these responsibilities are not being uniformly fulfilled.”

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) of the Intelligence Committee, along with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, penned a letter to the Government Accountability Office on Dec. 7 demanding that the oversight agency conduct a far-reaching review.

The request was made public during a Jan. 17 confirmation hearing for Michael Atkinson, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the next top watchdog for the intelligence community. Atkinson is a former Justice Department prosecutor, but he will likely face an uphill battle in parrying the lawmakers’ concerns.

“The Inspectors General within the Intelligence Community have the responsibility to oversee the protection of whistleblowers, ensure that whistleblower protection policies and processes are properly adhered to, and guarantee that claims made by whistleblowers are investigated in a timely and fair manner,” the senators wrote in a letter exclusively obtained by Foreign Policy.

In recent months, Foreign Policy and other outlets have investigated the ongoing deterioration of inspector general protections at various intelligence agencies.

The Office of the Intelligence Community Inspector General, created in 2010 to conduct independent audits of the entire intelligence community and respond to concerns of reprisal within those agencies, has been teetering over a precipice in recent months. It has been rattled by internal turf battles, the failure to complete long-languishing investigations, and the near elimination of the whistleblower outreach program.

The head of that office, Dan Meyer, was forbidden from communicating with whistleblowers and was later removed from his office to undergo an audit of his own. Meyer, in a statement emailed to FP, describes himself as a whistleblower within his whistleblowing office. “Earlier this year, I blew the whistle myself,” he wrote. He described a “systemic failure” at the Intelligence Community Inspector General to carry out Barack Obama-era policies to independently protect whistleblowers from retaliation.

Having an independent watchdog available to respond to reports of fraud, waste, abuse, and misconduct is vital to holding government agencies accountable. But such oversight also helps prevent major leaks of classified information, a priority for both congressional leaders and the Trump administration.

The audit requested by the four senators will include all whistleblower programs at the Intelligence Community Inspector General, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the National Reconnaissance Office, according to the letter.

Investigators will be tasked with reviewing “outreach activities” as well as any policies that “impede the timely and effective reporting” of complaints to relevant officials. An initial report on the plan for the investigation is due 90 days from Dec. 7.

“If you’re a whistleblower making a protected disclosure, no matter where you go, you shouldn’t suffer retaliation,” Irvin McCullough, an investigator for the Government Accountability Project, told FP. “Coupled with Mr. Atkinson’s commitment to whistleblower protections, the study should pave his way to be a powerful leader in the accountability sphere.”

Meyer’s removal hasn’t been the only turbulence. The nominee for CIA inspector general, Christopher Sharpley, has several outstanding retaliation complaints against him that could delay his confirmation. Sharpley is mired in ongoing reprisal cases from at least two former CIA Office of Inspector General employees, Jonathan Kaplan and Andrew Bakaj.

The inspector general at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Kristi Waschull, is plagued by retaliation complaints by former employees who argue she is too deferential to her former colleagues and friends in management at the agency, and that she has softened internal reports and neutered the agency, as FP reported.

Meanwhile, George Ellard, the NSA inspector general who was placed on administrative leave after he was found by a panel of other IGs in 2016 to have retaliated against a whistleblower, got his job back in the new administration. (The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, which oversees various Pentagon affairs, rejected the independent panel’s findings.)

But now he seems to be moving on: He has been assigned to serve as the NSA’s representative at the National War College, a position he apparently vied for prior to the internal investigation; earlier press reports suggested that the planned move had been cancelled.

During the nomination hearings Wednesday for Atkinson and another nominee to be the top lawyer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, lawmakers expressed serious concerns about the independence, effectiveness, and proper functioning of the various Inspector General offices in the intelligence community.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, expressed concern over the “reported challenges” facing whistleblowers at the office and demanded that Atkinson “tell the committee what you plan to do to address these issues we’ve been hearing about.”

“I do not believe I am revealing any confidences,” Atkinson said in his opening statement,when I share my impression that there is a broad view among the Committee, its staff, and other members that the Office of the IC IG is not currently functioning as effectively as Congress intended.” The statement referred to FP’s investigation into the office.

This needs to change before the IC IG loses the support of the Committee and the Congress as a whole,” Atkinson continued. “Simply put, the [Intelligence Community Inspector General] needs to get its own house in order.”