Is the Pentagon’s “Independent” Watchdog Really That Independent?
Last month the Project On Government Oversight sent a letter to Acting Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG) Glenn Fine raising concerns that his office’s administrative investigations were poorly documented and lacked independence. Now, in a recent Floor speech, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) has raised similar concerns in the context of the DoD IG’s investigation into Navy Rear Admiral Brian Losey’s illegal retaliation against suspected whistleblowers.
First some background. As originally reported by Craig Whitlock at TheWashington Post, the DoD IG substantiated allegations that Losey had retaliated against individuals he suspected to have reported that he improperly used taxpayer funds for personal travel. He was cleared of the travel-spending allegations, but drew up an “enemies list” of those he believed could have reported him. “If you continue to undermine my authority as a commander, I’m going to bury each one of them,” one witness said Losey told his staff. “I’m going to come after them, and I’m going to [make] it very unpleasant.”
Losey was promoted despite these findings, likely in part because the IG’s report wasn’t released to the public until The Washington Post obtained copies of it from other sources. The IG’s practice of only releasing reports in response to Freedom of Information Act requests is one of the systemic issues POGO raised in our letter to Acting IG Fine. “The office’s practice of withholding its reports from public release unless they are specifically requested demonstrates a poor understanding of the office’s role regarding agency leadership,” we wrote. This practice has also been criticized by the Department of Justice Inspector General (DOJ IG), who recommended the DoD IG publicly release and publicize substantiated findings of whistleblower retaliation to heighten awareness of the military whistleblower protection law, deter others from retaliating, and encourage other victims of reprisal to come forward.
The attention on this case was spurred, Senator Grassley explained, by a whistleblower tip to Congress. That tip resulted in Senators from the Whistleblower Caucus, specifically Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Grassley, Mark Kirk (R-IL), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), requesting documents on the Losey case to learn more.
Following the Post’s report, a number of those Senators, along with a number of colleagues, acted again. Senator McCaskill wrote to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to find out why Losey had not been held accountable for his actions. Whistleblower Caucus Vice Chairman Senator Wyden placed a hold on Janine Davidson, who had been nominated to be Under Secretary of the Navy, to get the Navy to review Losey’s promotion. Beyond the Caucus, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI) sent a letter to Secretary Mabus in response to the investigation reports, expressing “deep reservations” about Losey receiving a second star and urging Mabus to deny the promotion, which he did in March.
The denial of Losey’s promotion was a huge victory for whistleblowers, sending a strong message that retaliating against whistleblowers can be a career-ending move. But it almost certainly would not have happened without the aggressive intervention of the Senate Whistleblower Caucus and the Senate Armed Services Committee.
And it turns out the DoD IG’s investigation into the full scope of Losey’s actions still isn’t over, even though it began over 1,150 days ago. Senator Grassley is worried that the delay is due to efforts to water down the findings. “On one side are the investigators. They appear to be guided by the evidence,” said Senator Grassley. “On the other side is top management. They appear eager to line up with the Navy’s decision to arbitrarily dismiss the evidence.” Specifically, Grassley is concerned that the head of DoD IG’s Administrative Investigations unit is pressuring investigators to alter their findings from substantiated to unsubstantiated.