Is whistleblower advocate for nation’s spies under attack?

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 2, 2014 

— The Pentagon’s inspector general is trying to suspend and possibly revoke the top secret access of the Defense Department’s former director of whistleblowing, triggering concerns in Congress that he’s being retaliated against for doing his job.

If the recommendation is acted on, Daniel Meyer would no longer be able to work in his current job as the executive director for intelligence community whistleblowing at a time when President Barack Obama’s reforms of the system are supposed to be underway.

The controversy over Meyer’s fate comes at an awkward moment for the Obama administration. Meyer, the Pentagon inspector general’s whistleblower advocate until last summer, was well-known for aggressively investigating whistleblower allegations. In his current job, he was supposed to have a key role in the president’s initiative to improve the intelligence whistleblowing system.

The administration pointed to those reforms after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked details on the agency’s then-classified mass collection of Americans’ email and phone records. Snowden has said he was prompted to disclose the details because he believed the whistleblowing system was broken.

“Dan Meyer has been a relentless advocate for whistleblowers in making sure they don’t fall through the cracks,” said one congressional staffer, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the matter. “If action is taken against him, it could have a chilling effect on whistleblowers coming forward.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, raised the possibility that a whistleblower might have been involved in the recent clash between her committee and the CIA.

Feinstein accused the CIA of interfering with her staff’s work on assembling a scathing report on the spy agency’s now-defunct interrogation and detention program. Feinstein has suggested that a whistleblower may have put classified documents into a CIA computer database that her staff was permitted to use in reviewing more than 6 million documents for the Senate’s report.

The CIA blocked access to those documents, prompting Feinstein to accuse the agency of illegal monitoring of the oversight staff’s work. CIA officials have denied any wrongdoing.

Meyer’s current office hears appeals and oversees investigations into whistleblower retaliation complaints from intelligence community employees and contractors, including the NSA and the CIA.

While Meyer’s predicament is not connected to the CIA interrogation report, it appears connected to his representation of whistleblowers’ interests, said three people with knowledge of the matter, including one former and one current U.S. official.

The proposed action against Meyer stems from a controversy over whether the Pentagon inspector general mishandled an investigation into whether the filmmakers of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” received classified information about the Osama bin Laden raid, according to documents reviewed by McClatchy.

At the time of the investigation into that leak, Meyer headed the Pentagon inspector general’s whistleblowing and transparency unit.

After he left, Meyer and other Pentagon inspector general employees were grilled about whether they leaked a draft of a report that concluded that former CIA Director Leon Panetta and the Defense Department’s top intelligence official disclosed sensitive information to the filmmakers. The draft report, which was not classified, was obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, and posted on its website last year.

When the final report on the matter came out eight months after the draft was leaked, the findings on Panetta and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers had been removed.

A spokesman for the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, which initiated the action against Meyer, said he could not respond to questions about employees because of privacy laws.

“As a general matter, the Privacy Act prohibits the (inspector general) from releasing any information from personnel files of individuals without the express permission of the person involved,” said spokesman Michael Thiem.

Meyer referred questions about his security clearance to the Intelligence Community Inspector General. Debby Chapman, that office’s public affairs representative, declined to comment on the matter.

Chapman did say in a statement that Meyer receives “allegations of fraud, waste, abuse, wrongdoing and illegality from within the intelligence community.”

In cases where a source asks to remain anonymous, he helps preserve the person’s anonymity to protect them from reprisal, she said.

Meyer’s duties also include promoting the importance of the whistleblowing program to the intelligence community workforce and the public “including internal campaigns, training events, information exchanges, public outreach and media engagements.”

The Intelligence Community Inspector General was created in 2011. The inspector general, I. Charles McCullough III, created Meyer’s job with the president’s whistleblower reforms in mind, Chapman said.

“The IC IG realized the impact of these statutory and regulatory (whistleblower) protections and the need for training and awareness surrounding these reforms,” Chapman said.

The president’s push to reform the whistleblower system clashes with a central pillar of his administration’s crackdown on leaks. The administration’s Insider Threat Program aims to use behavioral profiling and tips from co-workers to identify federal employees who someday might make unauthorized disclosures. Under the program, the Defense Department equates leaking to the news media with spying.

While the draft report that Meyer was questioned about wasn’t classified, the inspector general’s office pursued the leak inquiry aggressively, grilling its own investigators and Meyer about contact with the Project on Government Oversight and McClatchy. McClatchy had reported that details about Vickers’ involvement in the “Zero Dark Thirty” leak had been sent to the Justice Department for review at a time when he was a candidate to replace Panetta as director of the CIA.

The draft report was also explosive because Panetta had become the secretary of defense by the time it was completed. The details on Panetta were declared top secret and sent to the CIA inspector general for “appropriate action,” according to a declassified document obtained by Judicial Watch, a government watchdog group.

The handling of the matter pointed to a double standard in leak investigations in which disclosures by lower-level officials have been vigorously pursued. Rarely, however, has the administration taken criminal action against senior officials for leaking.

Although the Pentagon inspector general’s office did not determine who leaked the draft report, Meyer volunteered to investigators that he sent the draft report to staffers on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of his duties informing the panels that have oversight on such matters.

Meyer, who denied leaking the draft report, was found to have made an “unauthorized disclosure” to Congress, according to documents obtained by McClatchy. Ironically, the memo accusing him of improper conduct was once again leaked to the Project on Government Oversight, which disclosed it this week.

Separately, Meyer is accused of making false statements, according to documents obtained by McClatchy, but those documents don’t specify the nature of the alleged false statements.

To this day – more than two years after the “Zero Dark Thirty” investigation was launched – it remains unclear whether Panetta or Vickers did anything improper.

What is known is that Panetta disclosed classified information at an awards ceremony held at CIA headquarters honoring those who participated in the raid. Mark Boal, the “Zero Dark Thirty” screenwriter, attended the ceremony and was the only audience member who didn’t have top-secret clearance. Panetta has told the Associated Press that he didn’t know Boal was in the audience.

McClatchy reported that the draft report concluded that Vickers had disclosed the protected name of a U.S. Special Operations Forces officer who helped plan the bin Laden raid to Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, the film’s director, and the inspector general referred the case to the Justice Department. The Justice Department declined to prosecute and no final determination has been announced.

Like the findings on Panetta, the conclusion that Vickers had leaked restricted information was taken out of the final version of the report. At the time, Vickers was Panetta’s leading choice to replace him as CIA director.

Lynne M. Halbrooks, who was the acting Pentagon inspector general, authorized the investigation in December 2011, which by several accounts was aggressively pursued. The probe was approaching completion the following November when investigators reviewed a set of talking points in preparation of the imminent release of a final report, according to documents McClatchy obtained.

Halbrooks, however, stepped in, telling several officials overseeing the inquiry that the report wouldn’t be released, igniting a dispute, McClatchy reported earlier.

As the disagreement escalated, Meyer in September 2012 accompanied one of Halbrooks’ staffers to a meeting on Capitol Hill, at which the staffer told congressional aides that Halbrooks and her general counsel, Henry Shelley Jr., were trying to delay the investigation until Panetta left office, McClatchy reported.

At that same meeting, Meyer accused Halbrooks of preventing her office’s interview of Army Col. Mark Fassl, then the inspector general for the training command, who had alleged that his supervisors tried to interfere with his ongoing investigation of the Afghan National Military Hospital, according to two sources.

Fassl had presented evidence of the medical neglect of allied Afghan soldiers, including the starvation of one. The inspector general later substantiated his allegations, but Fassl was not treated as a whistleblower. He has since told McClatchy he regarded himself as one.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service