CIA Watchdog Nominee Denies Charges of Whistleblower Retaliation

CIA inspector general nominee Christopher Sharpley appears at his confirmation hearing Tuesday. CIA inspector general nominee Christopher Sharpley appears at his confirmation hearing Tuesday. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Christopher Sharpley, the acting CIA watchdog whom President Trump has nominated to be permanent inspector general, on Tuesday expressed skepticism about revelations by a whistleblower advocacy group that there are three outstanding cases alleging retaliation by his office.

On Monday the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight published an article by investigator and senior fellow Adam Zagorin saying, “The White House has selected [as] a leader of the CIA’s key watchdog division—which depends on whistleblowers to report waste, fraud and other abuses—someone who has several unresolved allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers. Two of the complaints were lodged with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, and a third is now before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.” One involved sex and age discrimination.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Mark Warner, D-Va., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., on Tuesday quizzed Sharpley about the allegations, which are based on internal documents and reinforced by an unclassified February 2017 document on letterhead of the broader Office of the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community. Titled “Evaluation of Reprisal Protections Pertaining to Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information,” with the author’s name redacted, the document argues that many of the intelligence community’s 17 agencies are not following President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive 19.

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 “The deficiencies in reprisal protections policies, procedures, and standards in the evaluated agencies are causing a failure to provide reprisal protections for individuals making protected disclosures,” it stated. “A complainant alleging reprisal for making a protected disclosure has a minimal chance to have a complaint processed and adjudicated in a timely and complete manner.”

Sharpley, a veteran of several IG jobs who joined the CIA IG as a deputy in 2012, has been acting CIA IG since 2015. He told senators on the Intelligence Committee that he was “not familiar with the document” from the Intel Community IG, though he said he had read the piece by POGO. “I am unaware of any open investigations on me,” Sharpley said. “Any complaints about these are hard for me to respond to if they are out there,” he said. “I support a process that is in place to protect the anonymity of anyone in the IG office or any intel official.”

Sharpley added that he was “proud” of the processes such as a hotline and retaliation program already in place in compliance with the practices of the Council of the Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked Sharpley, “Have you ever retaliated against any whistleblower within the CIA or any other agency?”  

“No, I have not,” he said. Sharpley did promise to let senators know in writing if he learned differently. He added that having a well-publicized whistleblower program along with training is “essential to the success of any OIG. You need to build confidence, so they feel comfortable providing information. If they are not comfortable, they won’t come to you,” he added, especially given the nature of the CIA’s mission, which is “compartmented and scattered around the world.”

Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., announced that he planned to support Sharpley’s nomination during a vote expected early next week, noting that the nominee had already responded to 85 questions in writing and had made 355 recommendations to improve the CIA.

The nominee himself described his career in the Air Force, his time at the Energy Department’s inspector general office, and his role during the 2008-2009 financial crisis in “building from the ground up” new IG offices at the Federal Housing Finance Agency and Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Warner told the nominee he wanted a “greater commitment” on encouraging reporting of waste, fraud and abuse. “Guard your independence fiercely,” Warner said, adding that he also wanted a commitment to support the ongoing probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

But the issue that concerned Warner and co-panelist Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., (who said he opposed Sharpley) was his office’s misplacing of the so-called “torture report,” the 7,000-page product of five years of research by the Senate panel’s staff on the Bush administration’s mishandling of prisoners with CIA cooperation during the Iraq war.

Sharpley, to his “embarrassment,” described how his team received a disk containing the report—which senators wanted circulated to IC agencies for its instructional value—and ordered it uploaded onto a secure system. But then they received guidance that because of a pending Freedom of Information Act case at the District of Columbia Circuit, no such documents should be kept on the internal system, he said. The disk was moved to a classified safe.

But the information technology administrator never received the email with the guidance, Sharpley said, and that technician—who’s no longer an employee—subsequently “guessed” in testimony that the disk was included in a stack that was shredded per normal policy. The court case was resolved in a ruling that that report was a congressional document, rather than one belonging in the executive branch, he said.

Then, when another employee was preparing to retire, the missing disk was discovered in the safe, at which time Sharpley returned it to Congress—without reading it and without consulting an attorney, he said. Since that episode, the CIA has tightened its procedures and requires a top official to review decisions to shred old disks, he said.

If confirmed, Sharpley said, he plans a “top-to-bottom overhaul” of the CIA IG’s management structure. Asked for its biggest challenge, he cited “recruitment and retention.” The office has “an inefficient process of onboarding people,” he said, citing the requirement to have to have three conditional offers of employment, and five interviews for each post. “So if I want to fill 10 slots, I have to make 30 offers of employment and conduct 150 interviews.”

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