Is the Intel Community’s Whistleblower Outreach Being Shut Down?

Ombudsman Meyer appears sidelined, though his past IG bosses praise him.

Whistleblower ombudsman Dan Meyer, who for years rode high working for inspectors general at the Defense Department and the intelligence community, may be having his wings clipped, a report indicates.

Interviews with intelligence community insiders for a piece published on Wednesday by Foreign Policy magazine show that Meyer’s four-year-old program of outreach and training on proper disclosure and whistleblower protections for employees working with classified material is endangered. Government Executive separately confirmed that the gist of the interviews is accurate.

Meyer “can no longer talk to whistleblowers,” wrote FP intelligence reporter Jenna McLaughlin. “He has been barred from communicating with whistleblowers, the main responsibility of his job as the executive director for intelligence community whistleblowing and source protection. He is currently working on an instructional pamphlet for whistleblowers, and he will have no duties to perform after he’s completed that work.” He still has access to the IC hotline phone number.

The most vivid evidence cited was the cancellation of a long-planned trip to the United Kingdom by his supervisor, current acting Deputy Inspector General Jeanette McMillian, the IG counsel whose own boss, Wayne Stone, is also acting since the departure in March of previous inspector general I. Charles McCullough III.

Some observers see Meyer’s demise as a sign of larger problems at the IG for the 17-agency intelligence community now led by President Trump’s appointee, Dan Coats. The intelligence community’s central watchdog “is in danger of crumbling thanks to mismanagement, bureaucratic battles [and] clashes among big personalities,” Foreign Policy reported. Sources suggested that Stone’s unusual part-time status—he’s working on a master’s degree at Harvard University—is a sign that he’s not in line for the permanent job, adding to an atmosphere of uncertainty.

An intelligence community IG spokesperson declined to comment on the story, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which influences the IG’s budget but not its personnel decisions, referred inquiries to the IG.

In interviews with Government Executive, both McCullough and his now-retired deputy Rob Johnson, had nothing but praise for Meyer’s program, though both stressed that they haven’t been on site or spoken to IG employees in months.

Meyer “has done a great job with intelligence community cases, which are obviously more cumbersome because of classified information,” said McCullough, who had originally planned to leave in November but was persuaded by then-ODNI Director James Clapper and the inspectors general council to remain until March. “He seems to strike the right balance when the executive branch accuses you of being an arm of Capitol Hill, and the Hill people accuse you of being a lapdog of the executive branch.”

It was McCullough who lured Meyer over to the intelligence community IG from the Pentagon IG’s office, having worked with him for a decade. “Dan was the perfect guy to set that up,” McCullough said, referring to the intel IG’s implementation of President Obama’s October 2012 Presidential Policy Directive-19, which added new protections for whistleblowers facing possible retaliation.

They had worked together a decade earlier at the National Security Agency, “where we had a similar philosophy on the importance of whistleblowers for IG work,” said McCullough, now an attorney with the Washington law form of Tully Rinckey. Meyer had set up the whistleblower ombudsman program at the Pentagon IG’s office and had whistleblower case experience working with the Office of Special Counsel. (Meyer himself was a whistleblower as a naval officer during the investigation of the 1989 explosion on board battleship Iowa.)

Meyer’s basic function for the intel community, said his former boss, is outreach, training and orienting government employees and contractors on the proper way to blow the whistle and protect themselves from retaliation lawfully. Under “virtually no circumstances in the intel community does that mean going to the media,” McCullough added, a point made clear by Meyer in many slide-show presentations to intel agency IG employees.

Both McCullough and his deputy made Meyer’s program a priority for added resources, Johnson said. But “bringing Dan on board didn’t excite a lot of people in Washington because Dan had a reputation.” He was seen as an advocate for whistleblowing, which some in the intelligence field see as “synonymous with leaking,” McCullough added.

Yet McCullough “and I wanted Dan for a long time, and were excited” about getting the message out “to the last cubicle” that there is a big difference between leakers and whistleblowers, “to make sure the main focus is that there’s a way to do this properly.”

Johnson went with Meyer to IG McCullough to request more resources, he said, with all in agreement that Meyer's  outreach program, in fulfillment of the president’s directive, was “fostering an environment where people feel they can come to the IG [with complaints or disclosures] and won’t end up being fired.”

Efforts were made to give Meyer more staff to help with strategic messaging.

Johnson said he had favored Meyer’s now-canceled trip to the United Kingdom. “There’s a lot of hearts and minds to win over in the intelligence community, and you’re not going to do it sitting in Washington.”

Meyer, however, “does rub some people the wrong way,” Johnson said. “He’s a zealot, but from everything I observed, a very disciplined zealot.”

Having now lost his staff, Meyer was criticized by some for dominating a program that “was all personality-driven—if you leave, this all collapses,” Johnson recalls hearing. Some on Capitol Hill, he added, said “that Dan worked himself out of a job, and that this had been the intention all along." He speculated that some were “waiting for Chuck [McCullough] to leave” before they shut the program down.

Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, told Government Executive that Meyer’s sidelining “is not a huge surprise.” She spoke of a “breakdown” in the intelligence community that is harming enforcement of whistleblower protections. POGO is one of several whistleblower groups Meyer’s team visited to compare training materials.

Any agency with acting leaders can end up “in a compromised position,” Hempowicz said. “I think there is some utility to having an office like [Meyer’s] for making sure that protections across the board at the IC are adhered to. But at end of the day, there’s some tension in being that person who is the clearinghouse, pushing for the gold standard. It’s a tough position to be in.”