When word recently leaked that the CIA inspector general was preparing to step down, agency Director John Brennan issued a glowing statement about his watchdog’s work.
Left unsaid was the role CIA Inspector General David Buckley had in refereeing one of the most acrimonious disputes between a spy director and his congressional overseers in decades.
Only months before, Buckley’s office had found that CIA employees had improperly monitored Senate Intelligence Committee staffers’ work on their torture inquiry – contradicting Brennan’s previous denial.
On Friday, Buckley maintained to McClatchy that he hadn’t experienced any backlash from agency leadership.
“It’s not always pleasant, but they don’t shoot the messenger,” he said in a 20-minute interview at CIA headquarters as he headed to an undisclosed job in the private sector. “Doing this job is tough. But there has been no undue pressure or interference here.”
Multiple people who were familiar with his work offered a more complicated portrayal of his tenure, asserting he leaves behind an office roiling with dissent over how to watchdog the nation’s most powerful intelligence agency. Buckley’s own staff had filed formal complaints about his management, according to the people who spoke to McClatchy.
All of those interviewed anonymously by McClatchy for this story, who included former colleagues, asked not to be identified because their perspective conflicts with the official portrayal of Buckley’s tenure promoted publicly by the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Their contention is that the former House Intelligence Committee staffer raised expectations that he would be an aggressive and independent watchdog but failed to deliver at a time of crisis.
After Buckley’s inquiry found that CIA employees had improperly monitored the committee’s work on its torture inquiry, a panel set up by the agency attacked his conclusions as inaccurate and recommended that no one be punished.
Buckley, meanwhile, began responding to queries from a potential employer as early as June, even though the Senate monitoring investigation wasn’t finalized until July.
“He split the baby,” said one former colleague. “He delivered half measures. He enraged the agency but let down the reformers. Those at the agency think he went too far, yet he didn’t deliver the goods when it came to accountability.”
The CIA inspector general, whose office is set up to be independent of the agency, reports to the CIA director. The office oversees inspections, investigations and audits of the agency’s activities and programs. An inspector general can be removed only by the president.
Buckley took office four years ago in the wake of a significant investigation by his predecessor into the CIA’s use of torture on overseas terrorism suspects.
As his predecessor John Helgerson was leading the probe, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden ordered an internal inquiry into the inspector general’s office itself. The action sparked criticism that Hayden was meddling improperly in the work of what was supposed to be an independent watchdog, a charge the CIA denied.
As Buckley settled into his new job, he told friends and colleagues he was surprised by the small-time cases being pursued by his investigators. He vowed to push for more significant investigations, such as contracting fraud, instead of the time card cheats that took up his office’s time.
“He had the noblest of intentions in terms of oversight,” said a second former colleague. “But he really was in a no-win situation. This is an agency that is arguably one of the most challenging to oversee in the U.S. government.”
Meanwhile, Buckley’s own colleagues – including senior officials – had complained about him to Congress and to the watchdog of the watchdogs – the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said people familiar with the complaints. The concerns included that he wasn’t being aggressive or independent enough in his handling of day-to-day investigations.
The FBI, which chairs the CIGIE panel that reviews complaints against inspectors general, confirmed that three complaints were filed against Buckley. Bureau spokesman Christopher Allen said the panel would have jurisdiction over administrative complaints against a CIA inspector general, but he wouldn’t comment on whether the three complaints against Buckley were filed by employees nor would he discuss the substance of them.
One complaint was related to how Buckley got copies of a confidential email to Congress about his response to alleged whistleblower retaliation within the CIA, according to several people familiar with the matter.
Somehow, Buckley obtained the email, which was written by Daniel Meyer, the intelligence community’s top official for whistleblower cases, to the office of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a leading whistleblower-protection advocate.
The email controversy, which McClatchy reported on previously, pointed to holes in the intelligence community’s whistleblower protection systems and raised fresh questions about the extent to which intelligence agencies can elude congressional oversight.
Two complaints against Buckley – filed in the fall of 2012 and July of 2014 – were closed without the CIGIE panel taking further action. Buckley’s office finalized the Senate-monitoring investigation in July but the complaint against him that month was not related, McClatchy learned.
The other complaint was filed in December and is still pending. However, it’s unlikely to be reviewed or investigated now that Buckley has stepped down.
CIGIE’s panel opens an investigation only when it involves allegations of administrative misconduct such as significant mismanagement. Allegations about how an inspector general makes decisions about cases aren’t likely to be investigated by the panel because that’s generally not within its jurisdiction.
Buckley dismissed the impact of the complaints on his office, saying he became aware of the 2012 complaint only when he received a letter clearing him. He said he was unaware of any others, citing rules requiring that such complaints be kept confidential.
Buckley also said he expected criticism because he instituted changes.
“We found some places that we could and should improve upon,” Buckley said without elaborating. “With any change at all, you are going to get some kind of resistance.”
Some of the people who spoke to McClatchy were sympathetic to Buckley’s predicament, pointing out that his employees might have become disgruntled for the wrong reasons.
“He was trying to do a job with a workforce made up with employees of the CIA, and some of them still have allegiances to the agency they’re supposed to investigate,” said the second former colleague. “He also did not make it a secret that he thought that his workforce was very poor. How do you then motivate them?”
However, complaints by employees can be damaging, even if not true.
“You’ve given that organization the ammunition to say you’re bad news because you have anarchy in your own workforce,” said the second former colleague. “He understood the importance of what he was doing. But he didn’t have the army behind him to do that.”
Some people familiar with Buckley’s recusal of himself from a leak investigation of former CIA Director Leon Panetta saw his decision as a sign that he didn’t want to get involved in the politically charged case. The CIA and Buckley refused to discuss the matter, but one possible explanation for Buckley’s recusal might have been that he witnessed the disclosures to a “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmaker. He was listed as attending the speech in which Panetta is said to have revealed classified information to the filmmaker.
Buckley, a former staffer with the Defense Department Inspector General’s Office, didn’t object to the Pentagon’s inspector general stepping into the investigation. That inquiry became enmeshed in controversy as conclusions that Panetta had provided classified information were suppressed, then leaked, at a time when Panetta was secretary of defense.
Yet the only action Buckley’s office is known to have taken was reviewing policies that guide the CIA’s engagement with the entertainment industry. The inaction became fodder for critics, who charged there was hypocrisy of the administration’s handling of leaks.
Buckley also didn’t have strong advocates among national security lawyers and whistleblower advocates who were left disappointed in his office’s handling of whistleblower retaliation, long seen as a weakness of intelligence community inspectors general. According to statistics McClatchy reported late last year, the CIA inspector general’s office hadn’t substantiated any of the eight whistleblower-retaliation complaints it had closed since 2003.
“In my many experiences, the office would do anything it could to dissuade someone from pursuing a real complaint, or simply sit on whatever complaint was filed and wait them out,” said Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer who’s represented agency employees. “But when it came to investigating employees for routine, almost inconsequential infractions involving the agency’s often-malfunctioning badge readers, the OIG went after these people with a vengeance.”
Recently, Buckley’s office refused to allow a former CIA contractor to tell his own lawyer details about his whistleblower allegations because they might be classified.
The contractor, John Reidy, cited his frustration with the inspector general’s handling of his case in his appeal to a new panel overseen by the intelligence community inspector general. Reidy said he’d been reassigned and ultimately lost his contract after he tried to raise the alarm in 2007 on an “intelligence failure” by the spy agency.
“Mr. Reidy filed a case that Mr. Buckley should have been interested in, but his office instead fought defiantly to avoid investigating it properly,” said Kel McClanahan, Reidy’s lawyer. “The lesson is that no matter what Mr. Buckley wanted to do, one man is not enough to fundamentally change the culture of such a broken system.”
Christopher Sharpley, the deputy CIA inspector general, will serve as acting inspector general until the president appoints and the Senate confirms a permanent successor.