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Why the NSA Inspector General Lost His Job (and Wants It Back)

In first major use of special presidential directive, special panel concludes watchdog retaliated against a whistleblower.

In a little-noticed move earlier this year, George Ellard was removed from his position as the inspector general at the National Security Agency. It turns out the dismissal can be traced to the the first major use of whistleblower protection provisions included in a 2012 presidential directive.

As first reported by Adam Zagorin of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, NSA chief Adm. Mike Rogers in May placed Ellard—a nine-year veteran at NSA—on administrative leave and proposed that he be terminated. The planned firing came after a panel of three inspectors general (from the CIA and the Treasury and Justice departments) concluded following an eight-month investigation that Ellard had retaliated against a whistleblower. An earlier investigation by the Pentagon IG’s office had failed to substantiate the whistleblower’s claims of retaliation.

The three-IG panel did its work under the auspices of of the 2012 directive.

Ellard had previously made waves in the whistleblower advocacy community in February 2014 when, in rare public comments reported by Politico, he told a Georgetown University Law Center gathering that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden could have gone through channels rather than leaking to the news media his bombshell 2013 revelation about U.S. domestic surveillance.

“Perhaps it’s the case that we could have shown, we could have explained to Mr. Snowden his misperceptions, his lack of understanding of what we do,” Ellard said.

Ellard himself became the subject of a complaint from an NSA employee who had contacted the Defense Department IG’s hotline with allegations of NSA overspending at a conference in Nashville, Tennessee. In 2013, the whistleblower’s identity was shared with Ellard, who then, according to the charges, denied the employee an assignment at the NSA IG’s Office of Investigations.

An initial review by the Pentagon watchdog did not substantiate the retaliation complaint, according to POGO’s report. But the whistleblower persisted, using President Obama’s 2012 Presidential Policy Directive-19, which included new protections for whistleblowers at the 17 intelligence community agencies.

The three-IG special external review panel backed the whistleblower, resulting in the planned dismissal of Ellard. An effort to transfer Ellard to an appointment at the National Defense University also was canceled.

Ellard is a former criminal defense attorney and Capitol Hill staffer who served as counsel to the congressional inquiry into the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He also was chief of staff to a commission investigating the spy activities of rogue FBI employee Robert Hanssen, according to a biography from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs.

In a statement to Government Executive, provided on condition of anonymity and reviewed by NSA, the NSA whistleblower said, “I am proud that my case was the first to move through the President's IC whistleblowing initiative of 2012. … The agency is currently engaged with me on the remedial portion of corrective action, the action needed to make me whole. To me, the PPD-19 process and the assistance of the Intelligence Community Inspector General's Office was critical to my success personally and professionally.”

Ellard, according to several sources, has written to Defense Secretary Ash Carter seeking his NSA job back. Ellard could not be reached for comment, despite inquiries to his attorneys and the Defense Department. A DOD spokesman said, “We do not discuss personnel matters.” The Defense and Justice IG offices also declined to comment.

The Intelligence Community IG provided a sketch of how the PPD-19 external review process works in procedures issued in July 2013. If an aspiring whistleblower exhausts the agency review process without success, he or she can contact the IC watchdog’s office. The office has 45 days to complete a memo to the IG, who then has the authority to appoint an external panel. It collects evidence and has 180 days to make a decision. If the panel recommends action, the agency has another 90 days to respond. If no action is taken by then, the issue goes to the White House and, most likely, Congress.

Former assistant DOD IG John Crane told Government Executive he did the initial intake for the NSA whistleblower complaint about overspending at the conference. He said officials in the Pentagon IG office then revealed the whistleblower’s identity to Ellard, which he characterized as a violation of the Inspector General Act. Crane spent 25 years in government before he was fired in 2013 after accusing the Pentagon watchdog office of whistleblower retaliation.