On Monday, a Defense Department loss became the U.S. intelligence community’s gain.
Dan Meyer, for more than a decade the major whistleblowers counselor working out of the Pentagon inspector general’s office, assumed a new post at an undisclosed location to provide interagency coordination for President Obama’s new policy protecting whistleblowing by national security employees.
The shift comes amid headlines about controversial leakers such as defrocked National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and Army Private Bradley Manning, whose court martial for disclosing thousands of agency documents to WikiLeaks is reaching a climax.
The 48-year-old Meyer is an attorney and Navy veteran who himself blew a whistle to Congress exposing misdirection in a probe of a 1989 explosion aboard the U.S.S. Iowa.
In an interview with Government Executive, he described his goal of convincing defense and intelligence agency heads that “whistleblowing is not leaking,” that reprisals don’t pay off and that the reporting of waste, fraud or abuse by front-line witnesses only strengthens the institution.
As Meyer leaves the Mark Center in Alexandria, Va., and sets up shop under Intelligence Community Inspector General Charles McCullough (who reports to the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper), his mouthful of a title now changes. Rather than bill himself as director of whistleblowing and transparency and whistleblower protection ombuds for the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General, he will answer to the equally elongated executive director, intelligence community whistleblowing and source protection. (He hopes to pronounce it IKWASP.)
For the past six months, Meyer’s assignment from acting Defense Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks was to lead an interagency working group preparing national security-related agencies’ response to Presidential Policy Directive 19. That White House order signed last October extends protections to national security whistleblowers not provided in the main law. The order was opposed by some Republicans, who thought its tolerance endangered national security, and by some whistleblower advocacy groups who thought it too weak without statutory backing.
While debate continues on legislative reform of national security-related whistleblowing, Meyer says, “the inspectors general need help, and I’ll take it from the president of the United States.”
The order requires the agencies to set up procedures to prevent retaliation against whistleblowers in the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, among others. Those procedures were due to Clapper’s office by July 8.
The order’s implementation involves “minor differences by agency,” Meyer says, “but now as people bring claims of reprisals, if there’s a finding that it has not been properly adjudicated within their agency, there’s an appeal process, an external review by the intelligence community inspector general.” The process “is similar, but not identical,” Meyer adds, to what the Merit Systems Protection Board does for the non-intel agencies.
Meyer has also been implementing new provisions of the 2012 updates to the Whistleblower Protection Act, the culmination of an effort he followed for years as he encouraged defense employees to make use of anonymous IG hotlines. The new protections redefine disclosure to include oral as well as written statements and communications previously defined as old, trivial or already known; they also make the whistleblower’s motive no longer subject to investigation.
Whistleblowing at Defense has come a long way, in Meyer’s view. “When I started as head of an investigative unit on civilian reprisal investigation,” he said, “the word whistleblower in 2004 was removed from my title because senior leadership was so concerned.” But titles are important, he stressed, and so it was restored for his next two titles.
Meyer acknowledges the role in the process played by nonprofit advocacy groups such as the Government Accountability Project, the Project on Government Oversight and the National Whistleblowers Center. Where they often differ is on taking complaints of waste, fraud or abuse to the news media, which is verboten for intelligence community employees. “It’s unlawful if you’re a leaker,” he says, “but lawful if you’re a whistleblower. We like the word whistleblower. They come to us so we can help the president find out what’s going on and get it fixed.”
Whistleblowers have many options when they embark on what is usually a perilous journey. Depending on their employment status, they can go to their supervisors, to anonymous IG hotlines, a member of Congress, or the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. “When I sit down with a whistleblower, I would describe those options and treat them equally,” Meyer said. “I’m not in the business of dissuading them from going to, say, the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee staff will often call us for help in understanding the process, and those committees have jurisdiction and may do oversight on us."
What Meyer does do with the prospective whistleblower is “remind them that whistleblowing is not an act to do when disorganized. I ask them to go and think about what has gone wrong, where they think the violation of law, rule or regulation is.”
If the employee has put classified information “in a bag, or double-marked in a sock,” Meyer said, “I want it handled so the information gets to the authority that fixes the problem in a way that is lawful. If the disclosure is done in a wrong way, they’re going to get nailed for it.”
Meyer is not a liberty to discuss such currently red-hot whistleblower controversies as Snowden and Manning. But as a general approach to the tough calls, he said, “When we have a communication, the leadership needs to look at that information, and we need to reverse-engineer in our minds how we ended up in that situation where our enemies now have access to information with which they can do us harm.”
In today’s climate, Meyer added, “I’m not confident we are meeting that mission training need. We’re over-trained and under-learned.” What is needed for the system to function right, he says, is for employees to “be invested in our national security” and act in a lawful way. But that requires “trust in their senior leadership. “When I see an agency without a strong whistleblower program, I think, `We’re not there yet.’ We need to make sure senior leaders want our people to go to the inspector general, to attach the word whistleblower to the hotline program so that it’s a good thing.” Then whistleblowing becomes safe and not “dirty,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to get to.”
Meyer recalls that when he was on active duty in the Navy, he never questioned the right of the ship’s captain to get up at 3:00 a.m. and talk to the sailor painting the deck who would tell him everything that’s going wrong. “I would just tell the sailor to tell me before the next officer’s call so I could prepare an answer.”