Congress

Pentagon harbors culture of revenge against whistleblowers

‘Your chances of avoiding professional suicide are akin to winning the lottery,’ one advocate says

Defense Department whistleblowers save taxpayers money and make the military stronger. But they often face retaliation, an IG report shows. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After an Army master sergeant witnessed sexual harassment and other misconduct in the ranks in 2014 and reported it to internal Defense Department authorities, the soldier’s supervisors retaliated. They suspended the whistleblower’s security clearance, issued a derogatory performance evaluation and put a written reprimand in the soldier’s file, among other reprisals.

Although the Pentagon inspector general’s office proved last year that the Army master sergeant was wrongly punished and the underlying allegations were true, the officials who retaliated had yet to face consequences. And it is not yet clear whether the damage they did to the soldier’s record has been fixed.

The Pentagon IG’s office recounts that story and many more like it, with names and exact timelines removed, in a little-noticed report delivered to Congress in November.

According to IG officials and data buried deep in the report, ordeals like that suffered by the master sergeant — a truthful disclosure followed by official retribution that usually goes unpunished — are repeated somewhere in the Defense Department more than three times a month on average.

Pentagon IG investigators are resolving more quickly than ever complaints of retaliation and intimidation against whistleblowers, but accountability is hard to find.

From fiscal 2013 through 2018 (the most recent reporting period), the IG determined that 350 Defense Department officials — most of them in the military services — retaliated against or sought to intimidate 195 whistleblowers.

In each of those cases, the IG substantiated both the allegation of wrongdoing and the report of retaliation for having disclosed it. But only one of the officials who tried to exact retribution on a whistleblower was fired.

Nearly half the retaliators’ cases are still pending within the department, though some are years old. In dozens of instances when action was taken, the punishment was just a verbal or written admonition. In 57 cases, the services or agencies opted to take no punitive action against the documented offender.

Meanwhile, about 85 percent of the people who bravely came forward to try to right a wrong — only to be punished professionally and personally for doing so — had still not gotten any remedy, the IG’s figures show.

 

Some lawmakers, when apprised of the latest statistics, promised action.

Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel and is a co-chair of the House Whistleblower Protection Caucus, said in a statement that the IG’s statistics are “deeply disturbing but not surprising.”

Reprisal against whistleblowers and lack of consequences for those who commit it, Speier said, “will not be tolerated,” adding that her subcommittee will focus on holding accountable Defense Department leaders who mishandle or minimize these cases. “Environments that condone and permit retaliation start at the top,” Speier said.

Defense Department whistleblowers save taxpayers money and make the military stronger, said Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, chairman and co-founder of the Senate’s Whistleblower Protection Caucus.

“Unfortunately, whistleblowers are all too often treated like skunks at a picnic,” Grassley said in a statement.

“These new figures from the office of Inspector General confirm something we’ve known for years now — there is a troubling pattern of Defense Department officials retaliating against whistleblowers and facing few, if any, consequences as a result,” said Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, vice chairman and co-founder of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus.

Mandy Smithberger, a whistleblower advocate with the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group, said the mass exonerations send a terrible signal to those who might consider disclosing wrongdoing.

“The message that’s sent is that the first priority is to protect the institution, not to ensure accountability for wrongdoing,” Smithberger said.

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Culture of retribution

Ironically, the Pentagon IG is increasingly effective at processing a surging number of complaints of wrongdoing at the Defense Department — about sexual harassment, procurement fraud and other unethical behavior.

The office is also speedily processing more and more allegations of retaliation against those who blow the whistle. But it’s had little impact on the culture of retribution within the Defense Department.

The acting Pentagon inspector general, Glenn Fine, not only reports to Congress and the public the results of his office’s investigations on whistleblower reprisals and other matters, he also regularly talks to the military services, defense agencies, major commands and the services’ IGs to follow up once retaliation investigations are completed, said Dwrena Allen, a spokeswoman for Fine, in a statement.

But there are limits to what he can do, Allen said. There are some cases where the IG challenges Defense Department managers when he disagrees with the response, or lack of one, she said. But whistleblower statutes do not allow an IG to force a remedy.

“Ultimately that is management’s responsibility,” Allen said.

The Defense Department public affairs office did not respond to a request for comment.

Lack of accountability

The IG’s recommendations on whistleblowers are not the only ones that senior Defense Department officials fail to enact. They are also disregarding or delaying implementation of scores of recommendations from IG auditors about how the military services or Pentagon agencies can save more than $2 billion by changing how they buy equipment and services, the IG reported last year.

The IG’s office hasn’t analyzed how the current extent of unheeded recommendations compares to past periods in the Pentagon’s history.

“Retaliation against whistleblowers at the Pentagon has always been serious and significant,” Grassley said. “I can’t say the problem’s gotten worse, but it hasn’t gotten better, despite repeated promises from department brass.”

The IG is unable to substantiate the overwhelming majority of the more than 2,000 whistleblower-reprisal allegations it receives annually. That is not to say the allegations that aren’t substantiated are all or mostly groundless, said Nilgun Tolek, head of the Pentagon IG’s whistleblower reprisal investigations unit.

It is often difficult to prove cause and effect between a whistleblower's disclosure and an adverse event that occurs subsequently in that person's job, experts say.

Nevertheless, scores of cases of reprisal and intimidation are confirmed annually. Some are described in a bare-bones way in the IG’s reports to Congress.

For example, when an Air Force captain complained to the service’s IG that a unit was dangerously lacking personnel, two superior officers, both colonels, demoted the captain and withheld reimbursement of legitimate expenses.

The colonels received only “verbal counseling” as punishment, according to the IG report.

In another case, when an Air Force master sergeant reported safety concerns in a unit, his superior downgraded his performance report. Action against the superior is still pending.

In addition to cases of outright reprisal, there are instances where officials used intimidation to seek to prevent the disclosures.

For instance, an Air Force master sergeant who worried that a subordinate might send complaints to the IG or Congress had the subordinate’s emails routed to the master sergeant and sought to intimidate the underling in other ways. The master sergeant merely got a letter of reprimand, the IG report says.

In the Marine Corps, meanwhile, a chief warrant officer warned his subordinates that it would be “mutiny” to “go out of the building” to complain about anything. Nothing had been done in that case as of last fall.

Risky business

Disclosures of wrongdoing of every variety tripled from fiscal 2013 to fiscal 2018, IG officials say — and allegations of reprisals against those who would report it through official channels (meaning to an inspector general or Congress) doubled.

Officials attribute the rise in allegations to improved reporting methods, such as an internet hotline and more attention from investigators, rather than an actual increase in problems.

Tolek said her office’s staff grew 45 percent in fiscal 2017 and 2018 to process the growing pile of complaints, and the results are showing.

“Our reputation for doing good work has grown,” said Tolek. “We are taking steps to get better at what we do.”

Patrick Gookin, director of the IG’s complaints hotline process, said an 18-month delay in reviewing allegations has disappeared.

“Credibility on the street is what’s driving up use of the hotline,” Gookin said.

But the IG’s solid work may not be enough to keep reports of wrongdoing trending upwards. It’s discouraging to potential whistleblowers, experts say, when the Pentagon fails to hold accountable officials who retaliate against truth-tellers.

“To make real progress, it’s going to require leadership that prioritizes whistleblower protection and understands that the culture needs to change,” said Grassley.

But right now, the risks remain very high, said Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group.

For those who disclose wrongdoing, even through approved channels, he said, “Your chances of avoiding professional suicide are akin to winning the lottery.”

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