National Security

Military whistleblowers have long wait for justice – if it comes

Christine Russell, a Navy reserve officer, said she experienced long delays and inaction by the Pentagon and Navy inspectors general's offices firsthand regarding a mandatory fee for alcohol at a command party. The photo was taken on Guam in 2007.
Christine Russell, a Navy reserve officer, said she experienced long delays and inaction by the Pentagon and Navy inspectors general's offices firsthand regarding a mandatory fee for alcohol at a command party. The photo was taken on Guam in 2007. McClatchy

Christine Russell, a Navy Reserve lieutenant, sums up her experience as a whistleblower as six years of frustrating inaction by the military.

“There was a lot of stalling,” said Russell, who now lives in San Diego but filed her complaint when she was stationed in Kuwait in 2009. “Admirals retired and transferred during all of the delays.”

A newly released congressional watchdog report demonstrates that the problem is not isolated to Russell’s case.

In a report made public Thursday, the Government Accountability Office said it had found many similarly long delays when it analyzed about 124 military whistleblower reprisal cases overseen by the Pentagon inspector general’s office.

According to the GAO’s assessment, investigations into complaints from military whistleblowers that they’d been retaliated against for denouncing wrongdoing take on average more than 500 days – almost three times longer than the legal requirement of completion in 180 days. Almost half the time, Defense Department inspectors general don’t send the required notifications after six months telling the service members how much longer they can expect to wait.

Without these notifications, “service members may be discouraged from reporting wrongdoing,” the GAO said.

As of September, 822 service members were waiting for their cases to be resolved; 163 of those have been on hold since 2012.

The findings echoed previous critical assessments in the last three years, sparking demands of reform from Congress.

“This is a serious management failure,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who tracks the handling of federal whistleblower cases. “It appears that the Pentagon inspector general’s office doesn’t seem to care about following the requirements in the law on whistleblowers or care about the treatment of whistleblowers, period.”

The Pentagon inspector general’s office responded that it’s fixing the problems and took issue with aspects of the report, saying the GAO mischaracterized the extent of the delays.

“The current report fails to recognize the many improvements DOD IG has made given the short time period,” the office wrote. It said the GAO “also casts its findings in the worst possible light.”

The GAO acknowledged that the Pentagon inspector general’s office has tried to improve its monitoring of investigations and had increased the size of the staff dedicated to whistleblower reprisal cases, but noted that a new tracking system has “limited reporting capabilities.”

Moreover, the GAO found the office lacking in its oversight of the inspectors general of the individual military branches, who investigate reprisal complaints.

The Pentagon “cannot ensure that all military whistleblower reprisal investigations adhere to quality standards,” the GAO said.

Russell, 38, says her case demonstrates that the military whistleblowing system is “a complete failure.”

The Naval Academy graduate first complained to the Navy’s inspector general in 2009 that she’d been forced to pay a fee for alcohol at a command party where there were no nonalcoholic drinks.

She said the Navy Inspector General’s Office didn’t immediately investigate her complaint and she was demobilized from Kuwait days later.

“This was traumatizing,” she said. “I was treated like a criminal and escorted out of the country by military police like I had committed a war crime.”

The Navy said it couldn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.

Eventually, the Navy launched an inquiry and a year later found an overall problem with how command parties were handled, she said. The Navy inspector general, however, concluded she hadn’t been retaliated against by her military superiors as a result.

The Pentagon inspector general’s office then stepped in and confirmed that Russell had been retaliated against in 2012 and recommended that the Navy address it, she said.

However, she said her promotion continued to be blocked. As a result, she said, she has no future in the Navy.

“The Navy was directed by the DOD IG in 2012 to make me whole,” she said. “After six years, the Navy failed to.”

The latest report on military cases echoes the GAO’s conclusions in 2012 that the Pentagon inspector general’s office “cannot be assured that it is effectively conducting its oversight responsibilities or implementing the whistleblower reprisal program as intended.”

A Pentagon inspector general team found fault during an internal review in 2011 with almost 70 percent of military reprisal cases it reviewed.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri blasted the Pentagon on Thursday for its delay in responding to critical reports.

“Military whistleblowers who are brave enough to come forward deserve better than what’s detailed in this report. I’m disappointed by the failure of the Department of Defense’s independent inspector general to ensure that these whistleblowers are protected from retaliation and reprisal,” she said.

“It’s outrageous that the Pentagon’s watchdog has made so little progress in implementing GAO’s recommendations from three years ago, and that their response to these findings appears to be a knee-jerk response to legitimate oversight rather than a genuine commitment to making needed improvements,” she added.

McClatchy has reported that the problems at the Pentagon inspector general’s office are more extensive than just how military reprisal cases are handled.

Multiple former and current officials from the Pentagon inspector general’s office have alleged to the Office of Special Counsel, the independent government agency that investigates whistleblower claims, that they’ve been retaliated against for objecting to how cases are handled.

Meanwhile, less than 20 percent of retaliation claims since 9/11 have been investigated by the Pentagon inspector general’s office, according to a McClatchy analysis late last year. The rest were thrown out after a preliminary analysis or no investigation.

Only 4 percent have been substantiated, McClatchy found. In private industry, the substantiation rate is said to be three times higher.

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