Project on Government Oversight cites reports that show investigations take average of 526 days and more than 86% of alleged reprisal cases are dismissed.
The internal investigations branch of the Pentagon maintains a climate that is “toxic” to whistleblowers, according to a leading good-government watchdog.
The Project on Government Oversight (Pogo) this week sent a letter to the Pentagon inspector general, Glenn Fine, seeking urgent changes to an investigative office it says takes years to close cases, dismisses most reprisal allegations made by would-be whistleblowers and allows senior officials to skate on misconduct charges.
The office has taken on a high-profile inquiry into allegations of doctored intelligence about the US war against the Islamic State coming from analysts at US Central Command. The inquiry is being closely watched on Capitol Hill.
Edward Snowden, who made revelations about bulk surveillance in 2013, cited the dismissive and even hostile treatment of National Security Agency whistleblowers by official channels as a motivation.
Mandy Smithberger of Pogo, which was founded by Defense Department whistleblowers and deals with such individuals regularly, said it has grown hard to look at the Pentagon inspector general’s office “and not tell people, ‘You shouldn’t expect much out of this process.’”
Citing years of reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative wing of Congress, Pogo presented a litany of charges to Fine, a well-regarded former Justice Department inspector general.
Fine, who took over the office in January, told the Guardian in a statement Pogo’s information was “one-sided and dated, and it took various GAO findings out of context”.
According to Pogo, Pentagon investigations take an average of 526 days to close, despite a 180-day limit required by law.
“Apparent misconduct” is “widespread” in the inspector general’s case filing system, Pogo charged, with information relevant to the conclusion of its inquiries “changed after the fact”.
“We now believe that DoD IG’s administrative investigations leadership, management, and staff may have purposely altered records to mislead GAO investigators about the depth of these problems,” the letter stated.
Whistleblowers are statistically unlikely to have an ally in the office: Pogo said the Pentagon inspector general has dismissed more than 86% of cases concerning alleged reprisals against would-be whistleblowers since 2012.
“This rate of dismissal, which is more than double that of service [army, navy and air force] IGs for the same types of cases, creates the appearance that DoD IG is focused on closing, rather than investigating, the cases it receives,” Pogo wrote in the letter, which was dated 8 March.
Pogo also alleged that senior officials were more likely to be cleared by the office than their junior counterparts. Again citing the GAO, Pogo said the office in recent years substantiated five allegations against senior officials – after investigating 27 and closing 364 without investigation.
The military services’ inspectors investigated all 250 cases against senior officials they received, substantiating 90.
Fine defended his office, saying it had made “significant progress” in handling whistleblower-reprisal allegations and identifying the “effectiveness and timeliness of investigations” as an area of focus for improvement.
“However, I believe that the leadership of AI [administrative investigations] was unfairly attacked in Pogo’s letter, and that [chief Marguerite] Garrison and her senior officials are leading the component in the right direction.
“AI has the difficult job of conducting tough, fair, thorough and timely whistleblower reprisal investigations, and I believe that AI leadership and staff are working hard to handle those duties in a responsible way.”
Without faith in whistleblower protections, Pogo’s Smithberger said, Defense Department employees and contractors who witness waste, fraud, abuse and illegality face a choice of either silence or public disclosure.
Smithberger praised Fine’s work at the Justice Department and said he had a lot of work ahead of him in repairing a “broken office”.