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Intel Community Watchdog Now Runs Revamped Whistleblower Center

Remake to ensure protected disclosures comes after shakeup at ombudsman’s program.  

A year after his swearing in as the central inspector general for the 17-agency intelligence community, Michael Atkinson laid out details of how the IC’s new Center for Protected Disclosures is functioning.

In the latest semiannual report covering the IG’s work from October 2018 to March 2019, his newly assembled team described the center—which was announced in the semi-annual report released last fall—as focusing on three functions:

  • Receiving and processing whistleblower complaints through an intelligence community-wide confidential hotline program accessible by phone or in-person;
  • Providing community outreach and guidance to employees who believe they suffered reprisal because they made a protected disclosure (acting through a Source Support Program Manager who provides guidance to whistleblowers, as well as an Intelligence Community Whistleblower Working Group); and,
  • Administering requests by employees and IC contractors for the IG to review allegations of reprisal under Presidential Policy Directive 19, Protecting Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information (PPD-19), which details special requirements on intel community workers for balancing the duty to report fraud, waste or abuse while protecting government secrets.

The new center is Atkinson’s follow-up to the discontinued intelligence community IG outreach and education program run by whistleblower ombudsman Dan Meyer, before he was eased out last year under controversial but murky circumstances.

Meyer—who had come to the IC watchdog to help with interagency coordination after it was rocked by the Edward Snowden disclosures—had worked with whistleblowers at the Defense Department’s IG office. With the title executive director for intelligence community whistleblowing and source protection under Atkinson’s predecessor Chuck McCullough, Meyer described his program as a “robust outreach and training program to further educate IC personnel on whistleblower protections.”

The reorganized center proceeds similarly, though with perhaps a more streamlined approach. The center benefited from key meetings with specialists from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s General Counsel, Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency office, where issues such as visitor confidentiality and whistleblower protections were shared.

The whistleblower protection’s website has been polished and stresses the basics while “improving transparency,” it said. And the ODNI’s principal deputy inspector general attended a panel discussion hosted by ODNI’s Strategy and Engagement Directorate to give specialists “an organizational overview highlighting their mission resources and complainant reporting channels and processes.”

Finally, the IG’s team has met with general counsels of all the intelligence agencies to fulfill a congressional mandate to examine policies and procedures in whistleblower investigations, including reprisal investigations and senior leader misconduct investigations within IG offices. The report stressed that unresolved internal cases will be sent out to the Integrity Committee of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency rather than being handled in-house.

The report included a note of praise from sometime critic Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who thanked the IG for fulfilling a vow from his confirmation hearing and promptly delivering in November 2018 to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee two long-sought now-declassified 2014 congressional notifications on whistleblower communications prepared by the intelligence IG and monitored by the CIA.

The most recent numbers on use of the center’s hotline show a current rise during the Trump administration: 251 complaints in 2016, 369 in 2017, 563 in 2018 and a 2019 rate that so far is accelerating.

Much of the IG’s semi-annual report addresses its audit and investigative work in program performance in such areas as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. In November 2018, it said, the ICIG began an ongoing audit of ODNI’s management of privileged users of ODNI systems to test controls that deter misuse. (Privileged users are authorized and trusted to perform security-related functions for information systems that ordinary users are not authorized to perform).

Dan Meyer, now a national security law partner with Tully Rinckey PLLC, read the new report and told Government Executive that intelligence IG “direct outreach to employees of the 17 intel agencies seems to be in decline. And it is not clear whether the [intelligence IG] is still able to use training to centralize the formation and application of investigative standards,” he said, speaking on his own behalf. “Also, six years into the program, and we still do not see much evidence of substantiated reprisal. And where are the common standards for reviewing security clearance reprisal under Part B of PPD-19?”

Rob Johnson, a former deputy IG at the intelligence community, noted that the report contains “no discussion of resources and no description of the outreach in any detail, so it's hard to compare with what the old program was.”

Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst at the nonprofit Government Accountability Project whose father is the former intelligence community IG, also commented on the lack of detail and the outsourcing to CIGIE.

Civil society groups are “still concerned with this watchdog's decision to not review certain allegations against other watchdogs within the intelligence community," he said via email. "Whistleblowers who make protected disclosures against IGs should be treated like all other whistleblowers within the intelligence community, meaning they deserve an external review panel if local IGs refuse to review their cases. We’re grateful that the IC IG is addressing this issue through the IC IG Forum, but this semiannual report does not lay out a plan to investigate and adjudicate wrongdoing within IG offices that are clearly subject to IC IG oversight.”