Death of a Whistleblower
Questions raised by a Pentagon investigator went unanswered following his workplace suicide.
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It’s almost not possible to overstate how large and complicated the United States Department of Defense is. It is the largest U.S. government agency, serves as the country’s biggest employer, and wields an annual budget of $738 billion. The task of detecting and deterring malfeasance within this labyrinth falls to the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General. Each year, the watchdog’s hotline receives some 14,000 complaints from Department of Defense employees, many of whom make grave allegations of criminality, fraud, or waste of government resources.
When credible allegations were made against senior officials, they landed on the desk of Steven Luke, one of around 30 investigators tasked with handling probes into some of the highest-ranking officials in the Pentagon. Having worked in the office for over a decade, Luke was well acquainted with the Washington swamp. He enjoyed his job, and he was good at it. But in January 2018, Luke was handed a case that caused him to question the integrity of his office and the motives of his supervisors, and led him to blow the whistle on the Pentagon’s own watchdog office.
At first glance, the case should have been relatively straightforward. Robert Cardillo, who was then the head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, had been accused of violating agency travel protocols. Luke had handled plenty of similar cases over the years, and travel investigations often left a paper trail.
He reviewed the evidence and felt that it was too thin to substantiate the claims. But in a series of emails obtained by Foreign Policy, Luke described how he felt under pressure from his supervisors to back up the allegations made against Cardillo. “From the outset, everyone in my leadership chain suggested or directed that I should substantiate the primary allegation,” he wrote in an email to the office of Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican known as the “patron saint of whistleblowers.” “I felt bullied, berated, and belittled unless I acquiesced to go along with everyone else and write the ROI [Report of Investigation] as a substantiation,” Luke wrote.
The case was ultimately closed as unsubstantiated, but the experience left Luke rattled.
He felt sure that had he not stuck his neck out, the case would have been upheld, leaving an indelible stain on Cardillo’s decadeslong record of government service. His wife, Amy Luke, said that it was the worst work-related stress she had ever seen him under. He was frustrated, preoccupied, and beginning to look for other jobs.
After the case was closed, Luke wrote a two-page email outlining his concerns to Charles Murphy, an investigator in Grassley’s office. They arranged to meet on Feb. 4, 2019.
But Luke never made it to the meeting.
On Jan. 8, 2019, he was found dead in the trunk of his red Volvo S60 in the parking garage of the Mark Center office building, home to the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General. An Alexandria police department investigation concluded that Luke—a father of four who had been stalked by depression throughout his adult life—had killed himself. He was 54 years old.
Last year, a whistleblower complaint by an anonymous CIA official set off a chain of events that culminated in the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump. It underscored the remarkable power of whistleblowing, as well as the enormous pressure that can come to bear on those who speak out, as the president and his allies doubled down in their efforts to expose the complaint’s author.
Each year, tens of thousands of government employees come forward to report misconduct. They play a pivotal role in holding the government to account and have saved taxpayers billions of dollars. Most whistleblowers do not imperil a presidency. Few ever make the news. The reality of whistleblowing is often different, and much darker, than the David and Goliath portrayal that has long captured imaginations in Hollywood. Having stumbled upon nepotism, corruption, vested interests, or political agendas, many are simply crushed by the powerful interests they are trying to expose. Whistleblowers are protected under the law, but they often face retaliation, demotion, or the loss of their livelihoods, which can take a profound toll: “There is a burgeoning field of research on whistleblower retaliation and a hostile work environment that causes stress-related disorders, such as PTSD, depression and suicide along with a host of physical disorders such as autoimmune diseases, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal,” said Jacqueline Garrick, the founder of the nonprofit Whistleblowers of America, in an email to Foreign Policy. In a poll of 100 whistleblowers run on the organization’s website, 50 percent of respondents said they had some thoughts of suicide during the whistleblowing process, Garrick said.
In writing to Grassley’s office, Luke was in the early stages of becoming a whistleblower himself. Allegations he made in a series of emails exchanged with Grassley’s office raise serious questions about the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General, where officials have previously been accused by lawmakers and independent watchdogs of exerting undue influence in investigations of senior officials and of presiding over a “toxic” environment for whistleblowers. “The tragic suicide of Steven Luke may be part of a long-standing pattern of alleged investigative misconduct, retaliation and bullying in the directorate where Luke worked. This abusive culture has apparently been allowed to exist unchecked for far too long,” Grassley said in a statement to Foreign Policy. “Those responsible must be held accountable.” Grassley added that acting Inspector General Glenn Fine “needs to address this problem without further delay.”
Responding to Grassley’s statement, Dwrena Allen, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, wrote, “This statement raises inaccurate allegations and unfairly makes inferences that are simply not supported by facts.” Allen referred Foreign Policy to the latest Federal Viewpoint survey of government employees, which showed significant improvements over recent years in the way employees of the Office of the Inspector General regard their workplace. “[T]he scores in Steven’s office on this survey (consistently over 90%) are much higher than in the federal government and the Department of Defense as a whole, and they demonstrate that there is not an abusive culture,” she said in a statement.
In 2015, 56 percent of employees at the Office of the Inspector General felt that they could make a disclosure about suspected wrongdoing without fear of reprisal, below the government-wide average. By 2019, 73 percent of agency staff said that they felt they could blow the whistle without facing retaliation, higher than the average across the government.
The Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General is a “shop that’s had a lot of problems for a long time,” said Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight, a good governance watchdog. As far back as 2002, a review by an external independent contractor found that “The culture of the OIG DoD has been, and continues to be, hostile to internal whistleblowers. All too often, OIG employees who have endeavored to identify mismanagement or violations of law have been punished by their chain of command.” This was echoed 14 years later in a letter from the Project on Government Oversight to Fine, the acting inspector general, that described the office as having a “cultural aversion” to whistleblowers.
“There is a lot of pressure there not to even open cases,” said Garrick of Whistleblowers of America. “I’ve not seen anybody that I can think of off the top of my head who has gone to the DoD OIG and even had a case get opened.”
Allen, the spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, described these comments as inaccurate, saying, “There is no pressure to reach any particular outcome on a case—other than to take the facts and evidence wherever they lead and to ensure the investigations and reports are well supported, well explained, and factually correct. That is what happened in the case discussed in the article, and what happens in our other cases as well.”
A spokesman for Grassley estimated that the senator’s office had been contacted by dozens of whistleblowers from within the Pentagon’s inspector general office over the last decade. “There have been concerns for a long time about the treatment of whistleblowers, certainly hostility toward internal and external whistleblowers,” Smithberger said. She added that it wasn’t necessarily unusual to see so many whistleblowers come forward from a watchdog office, as they are likely more aware of what their rights are than other government employees.
Allen declined to comment on past concerns raised about the inspector general’s office, describing the allegations as “not fully accurate” and “dated.” She said that the Administrative Investigations division where Luke worked had made numerous improvements since 2016, stepping up the timeliness of investigations, reallocating significant resources to the office, and increasing staff numbers. She pointed to a 2018 report from the Project on Government Oversight recommending that the inspector general’s alternative dispute resolution initiative, which uses mediation as a means of resolving complaints instead of lengthy investigations, be considered for implementation at other large offices of inspectors general.
In a 2017 speech, Grassley raised concerns that senior managers in the Pentagon inspector general’s office had, “allegedly been tampering with investigative reports and then retaliating against supervisory investigators who call them to account.” In the same speech, he took the office to task for its backlog in processing whistleblower tips that come in through the agency’s hotline. One of the sharpest critics of the inspector general’s office, Grassley later commended it for reducing the backlog in a 2019 speech, describing it as “a glimmer of hope in an otherwise swamp of secrecy.”
Previous whistleblowers who have come forward from the Office of the Inspector General have alleged that there had been pressure in politically sensitive cases not to stand up allegations made against senior officials. What is different about the claims made by Steven Luke is that he instead seemed to feel pressure to substantiate a case in which he didn’t feel the evidence held up.
It’s not clear whether any senior officials at the Pentagon’s inspector general office sought to influence Luke’s investigation into Cardillo or why. Nor is it apparent from his emails who he allegedly felt under pressure from to substantiate the investigation. Allen denied that there had been any improper influence on the outcome of the case.
In emails to Grassley’s office, Luke said that the then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis had taken a personal interest in Cardillo’s case and speculated that Mattis may have been planning to move or promote the geospatial intelligence chief. “Honestly, it really bothers me—as a human being—that this gentleman’s long and distinguished career would have ended based on a group think ROI [Report of Investigation] had it not been for my willingness to say to my supervisors, ‘No, this isn’t right,’” he wrote.
Cardillo confirmed to Foreign Policy that he had been the subject of an inspector general investigation into two alleged violations of travel standards, and he confirmed that he’d met with Luke during his investigation. He was not aware whether or not he was being considered for a more senior appointment by Mattis. Through a spokesperson, Mattis declined to comment on this story.
Seventy-four offices of inspectors general operate across the U.S. government, and they are often the first port of call for federal employees looking to report allegations of wrongdoing. Luke’s claims of alleged misconduct within the Pentagon’s watchdog office cut to the heart of an age-old dilemma of who watches the watchmen.
“I often say that IGs, the overseers of agencies, need to be as pure as driven snow, because if they are not, all of their work is tainted,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly during a hearing of the House Oversight Committee in September 2019. Luke’s emails to Grassley’s office raise significant questions about conduct within the inspector general’s office, questions that went unanswered after his death, which is reported here for the first time. Did Steven Luke face any undue pressure regarding Cardillo’s case? Was he “bullied” by his supervisors to substantiate the claims? Was someone looking to use the case to smear Cardillo, as Luke feared?
A Freedom of Information Act request by Foreign Policy revealed that the watchdog did not conduct an internal investigation into Luke’s death. Grassley’s office halted its investigation of the claims upon the advice of counsel as Luke’s death was investigated by law enforcement.
Experts caution against trying to pinpoint a single cause in cases of suicide. “Suicide is complex, and there are many factors that contribute—it’s never just one single factor,” said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, a clinical psychologist and the vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “What happens is when somebody has a stress or multiple stresses it can look like that was the cause, but we don’t know what the person brings to it in terms of any risk factors and vulnerability.” Harkavy-Friedman noted that around 60 percent of people who die by suicide are known to have depression at the time of their death.
Luke’s wife said that his supervisor was aware of her husband’s mental health history and had been very supportive over the years. Allen, the spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, said, “Mr. Luke was a part of a close office that supported him over the years with personal and caring help when he needed it, both in and outside the workplace. His OIG colleagues—employees, supervisors, and leadership alike—were heartbroken when we learned that Mr. Luke succumbed to his illness.”
Luke had previously attempted to take his own life, and his wife, Amy, worried that it was only a matter of time before he would reach that point again. But she does fear that it was hastened by stress he faced at work. “If they would have just let him do what he’s supposed to do in the job, he would have not been in that darkest place that he ended up being. But I think he eventually would have,” she said. The weekend before his death, Luke had seemed overwhelmed. “He just was dissolving. His mind was just not functioning right,” Amy Luke said.
The living room of the Luke family home in Stafford, Virginia, is adorned with photographs and mementos of all that the Lukes held dear: Texas roots, family, and their Mormon faith. Beneath a photo of the Lukes with their four children, the youngest of whom is now 16 years old, is a long drop-leaf table that has been turned into a memorial to Steven Luke’s life: A graying plush Snoopy from his childhood in Lubbock, Texas. An award he received in 2015 for “Investigation of the Year” in his department of the Office of the Inspector General. The bullet casings from the three-volley salute fired at his funeral.
Luke joined the inspector general’s office in 2008 after retiring from a 20-year career in Air Force intelligence. With a staff of more than 1,500 members, the office is responsible for detecting and deterring unscrupulous behavior that can gather in the corners of the Department of Defense. It’s this kind of work that makes it one of the highest-stakes watchdog offices in the federal government, according to Irvin McCullough of the whistleblower advocacy group the Government Accountability Project. “The DoD OIG is also conducting many, many sensitive investigations, some of which are still properly classified, on extraordinarily sensitive programs,” McCullough said. Luke worked in the Investigations of Senior Officials directorate, a subcomponent of the inspector general’s office that investigates allegations leveled against some of the most senior figures, both military and civilian, within the Department of Defense. In 2019, the office was tasked with investigating then-acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan himself. The allegations were not substantiated.
Working hard had become a form of self-medication for Luke, a way to stave off the depression that weighed heavily on him—Amy Luke, his wife of 33 years, recalled him saying, “I work so hard so people don’t think there’s something wrong with me.” Amy said her husband had long been motivated by a strong sense of justice. In his email signature he included a quote sometimes attributed to the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”
At work he had a reputation among colleagues for being diligent, uncompromising. He had a “high level of attention to detail, very committed to sticking with an investigative plan,” said Daniel Meyer, who previously served as director for whistleblowing and transparency at the Pentagon inspector general’s office. “He really didn’t try to read what his boss wanted. He just presented his work as he found it,” Meyer said. These were useful characteristics to have in an investigator, but it made it all the more difficult when Luke came up against what he felt was wrongdoing by his own supervisors. Meyer, who went on to serve as the executive director of intelligence community whistleblowing and source protection, said that whistleblowers or investigators who have an unyielding approach to wrongdoing can be challenged most when they’re confronted with it in their own office.
“The folks who have the hardest time,” Meyer said, “are the whistleblowers or investigators who see a rule, and they see it violated, and they expect there to be a response to that.” He added that there was often an issue of “emotional intelligence” and “resilience” among whistleblowers: “[W]e used to study and watch those two qualities carefully in the IG, when I worked with Steve and the other investigators.”
Meyer himself had blown the whistle on the inspector general’s office in 2016, alleging that they had watered down an investigation into whether former CIA Director Leon Panetta had revealed classified information about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound to the screenwriter who wrote the script for Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the raid.
In late January 2018, Luke was handed the case that would ultimately prompt him to go from watchdog to whistleblower and approach the office of Grassley, whose staff have handled a number of whistleblower complaints about the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General. It wasn’t the first time Luke had contacted the office. In 2013, he reached out to report concerns about the length of time it took for investigative reports to be reviewed by senior leaders in his office and by the agency’s general counsel, but he never followed up.
In a two-page email sent on Dec. 17, 2018, Luke detailed how he felt bullied and increasingly isolated as he sought to resist efforts by his supervisors to substantiate the claims made against Robert Cardillo, who stepped down as director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in February 2019 as part of a scheduled departure. In the email, Luke dispassionately recounts how, after examining the evidence, he advised his bosses that he did not see a “slam dunk” violation of the agency’s rules regarding travel. His supervisors, according to Luke, felt differently. “Over a period of several months, I was pressured and bullied to write the ROI [Report of Investigation] in such a fashion that it would conclude as a ‘substantiation.’”
Luke describes how he found himself excluded from meetings about the case even though he was the lead investigator. When he complained, he received his first ever letter of counseling, a letter from his supervisors detailing what they saw as unacceptable behavior. “I began to believe that my exclusion from internal meetings was because I was the lone voice that insisted the evidence led to a non-substantiation,” he wrote.
In a subsequent email, Luke alleged that a few months into the probe, Marguerite Garrison, the head of his division, told him she was briefing acting Inspector General Fine that they planned to substantiate the claims against Cardillo. In response to questions from Foreign Policy, Allen, the spokeswoman for the Office of the Inspector General, said that it was not uncommon for senior officials to advise the inspector general about the status of an investigation. She added Luke had not included exculpatory evidence in his initial draft report and, at the time, it looked as if the case was set to be substantiated.
Garrison’s handling of cases has previously drawn scrutiny from Grassley. In speeches on the Senate floor in 2016 and 2017, Grassley singled her out when he accused the department’s leaders of having “doctored” an investigation in favor of a rear admiral accused of retaliating against subordinates he suspected of being whistleblowers. He said Garrison allegedly wrote a letter to the rear admiral, clearing him of any wrongdoing before the investigation had been finalized. “To conform with the Garrison letter, the findings in the draft report had to be allegedly changed from substantiated to not substantiated. The investigators dug in their heels and stood their ground,” Grassley said in the 2016 speech.
Allen described these allegations as inaccurate, adding, “Rear Admiral Losey had five separate reprisal investigations opened against him, three of which were found to be substantiated by the OIG. In the first of the other two cases, Rear Admiral Losey was not substantiated against for reprisal, and in the second case, to which Senator Grassley referred, Rear Admiral Losey was removed as the subject of that case because the evidence developed in the investigation showed that the prohibited personnel action was taken by the other alleged subject.”
By August 2018, after months of feeling “pressured and bullied,” Luke acquiesced and told his supervisors that he would write a report substantiating the claims, but only if all of the exculpatory evidence could be included in the final report. If it were deleted, he would complain to Congress.
It was at this point that the pressure began to ease. Luke started to feel like his leadership had begun to take his draft report seriously. According to his email to Grassley’s office, he shared it with four colleagues, senior investigators who were not involved in the case, for a cold read. All reached the same conclusion that the primary allegation against Cardillo did not stand up. Ultimately, the case was closed as unsubstantiated and, according to Luke’s email, was hand-delivered to Mattis, the then-secretary of defense, on Nov. 30, 2018.
“I take no joy in doing this. I like my co-workers. However, our ISO [Investigations of Senior Officials] process is broken and no one here is willing or able to change it,” he wrote in a later email.
Allen declined to comment on the facts and circumstances surrounding the case, or on Luke’s perceptions of how it was handled. “Mr. Luke was involved in professional discussions with his supervisors where they sought to confirm that there was sufficient evidence to support Mr. Luke’s proposed outcome in the case,” she said. “Mr. Luke’s supervisors ultimately reviewed the evidence collected by Mr. Luke, found the information in Mr. Luke’s files to support the conclusions in the report, and the report was issued with all relevant evidence, in accord with Mr. Luke’s initial conclusion about the case.”
In the days before Luke died, internal Office of the Inspector General emails obtained by Foreign Policy show that he informed his bosses of his plans to meet with Murphy, the investigator in Grassley’s office, regarding their handling of the Cardillo investigation, which by that point had been closed. Emails also show his supervisor informed him that he could use official time for the meeting.
On Monday, Jan. 7, Fine, the acting inspector general of the Department of Defense, wrote to Luke and offered to meet with him to talk through his concerns. Luke replied the next day to say he would be happy to meet that morning. It is unclear whether the meeting ever took place. Later that day, when Luke failed to return home at the usual time, his wife raised the alarm. His body was found later that evening.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Luke joined the U.S. Air Force in 1988, drawn by a desire to serve his country and a love of travel. His work in Air Force intelligence took the family around the world, from South Korea to Panama to Spain and Germany, but wherever they went, Luke’s depression followed. For years he resisted seeking help for his mental health, fearing that it could put his security clearance and by extension his job at risk. It was only some 15 years into his Air Force career that he was placed on medication that helped to alleviate some of his symptoms. But years of missed treatment had already taken a toll, further entrenching his depression, Amy Luke said.
Only a tiny number of security clearances are denied or revoked because of mental health, according to the Department of Defense. Between 2006 and 2012, only one in every 35,000 people either applying for the first time or looking to maintain their security clearance was denied because they disclosed a history of mental health issues, a message military leaders have tried to drive home. But Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a former Army psychiatrist, said that the stakes of losing a security clearance have long held service members back from seeking help. “Say you’ve been in the military for 10 to 15 years. Losing your clearance means losing your job—that means losing your health care. It also means losing your housing and losing your retirement,” said Ritchie, who at the time of her retirement from the military in 2010 served as the director of proponency of behavioral health in the Office of the Army Surgeon General. Added to that is the stigma attached to seeking help, “It’s a concern about what your buddies will think, concern that you won’t be found fit for duty,” Ritchie said.
The one thing that offered Luke a temporary release from his depression was speaking Spanish, Amy Luke said. After graduating high school, Luke spent 18 months in the Dominican Republic as a missionary. He went on to complete a degree in Spanish at the University of North Texas. “It’s like he could compartmentalize the depressed Steven from the Spanish-speaking Steven,” Amy said. He tried to instill his love of the language in their four children, buying them books and Disney films in Spanish.
Five months after her husband died, Amy Luke wrote to his former colleagues, explaining his history of depression. “There was not anything that could have been said or done to have changed the outcome. I know, I tried to save him from his suicidal thoughts for thirty-three years,” she wrote in the letter. It was signed off with a red heart.
In response to questions from Foreign Policy, the Office of the Inspector General reached out to Steven Luke’s wife for comment, which Allen included in the agency’s response. Amy Luke said, “I know that Steven’s peers and his leadership were thoughtful, professional, and caring when it came to the depression he experienced. He suffered from a pervasive and profound depression that he lived with for most of his life. Unfortunately, the suicidal ideation that often accompanies this kind of depression can be deadly, as was the case with Steven. I don’t think Steven’s death can be attributed directly to this case or to the atmosphere at work or from anyone’s actions or inactions.”
On Jan. 15, 2019, Steven Luke was buried amid the neat rows of granite headstones in Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the only sound to disturb the silent repose of the cemetery was a light breeze that whispered through a nearby thicket of trees and rippled the miniature American flags planted in the earth.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack