Column: Disappointing end to CentCom investigation

A survey found a drop in analysts who think CentCom protects data from distortion. EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN   |   Times
A survey found a drop in analysts who think CentCom protects data from distortion.EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times
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In May 2015, an analyst at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa filed a complaint regarding an urgent concern: Leadership was watering down intelligence on ISIS. What followed shows the flaws inherent when an agency watches itself.

Over seven months later, Congress created a joint task force to investigate the analyst's concern. By then, a climate survey at CentCom revealed dozens of analysts found the environment toxic, and 40 percent experienced an "attempt to distort or suppress intelligence in the past year." Yet nothing was done.

The task force substantiated the whistleblowers' concerns and concluded that CentCom disseminated "intelligence products that were inconsistent with the judgments of many senior career analysts at CentCom." It said it expected the Defense Department's inspector general to further investigate these concerns and allegations of reprisals.

Some analysts declined to be interviewed, and the task force noted as its "interviews were commencing, the director of the (Defense Intelligence Agency) publicly characterized reports of the whistleblower's allegations as exaggerations. … DOD insisted on having department officials present during … interviews."

How's that for a chilling effect?

Yet last week, the Defense Department's inspector general concluded the task force got it wrong. The almost 200-page unclassified report does not mention "retaliation" or "reprisal." It does not suggest concerns about reprisals were investigated. It mentions leadership failures but concludes concerns about ISIS intelligence being slanted were mistaken "perceptions." Witnesses are unsure how the directive from CentCom leadership to "kill or delay the DIA assessment'' is open to interpretation.

Regarding attempts to "influence witness testimony," the Defense Department's inspector general stated one witness alleged a colonel attempted to "invoke the loyalty card" and said, "If you're contacted by the IG … be aware that Grove is the senior intelligence officer here and we all work for him." The witness also stated that a supervisor said "he regarded the complaint as disloyal and a personal attack on his integrity." The inspector general did not substantiate this, explaining the analyst "backed off his allegation in a subsequent interview." There is no discussion about how troubling it is that a whistleblower alleging intimidation "backed off" his claims.

Also troubling is a chart showing responses to the question, "Has anyone attempted to distort or suppress analysis … in the face of persuasive evidence?" In 2014, 16 percent of analysts at CentCom said yes, while in 2015 that jumped to 41 percent. Another question asked, "How would you rate mid/senior management … in terms of protecting analytic products from deliberate distortion?" In 2014, 70 percent responded "satisfactory," but in 2015 that plummeted to 38 percent. Yet the Defense Department's inspector general concluded the climate was acceptable and improving.

I represent a CentCom employee who believes she was retaliated against for opposing a change to the context and substance of assessments. While the Defense Department's inspector general was aware my client had relevant testimony, she was never contacted. Instead, the CentCom inspector general in the midst of the investigation publicly posted my client's complaint. Analysts told her that they were "keeping their heads down" to avoid being targeted.

The day before the Defense Department's inspector general released its report, the Defense Intelligence Agency director announced the allegations were unsubstantiated, made no mention of leadership failures and, ironically, declared his commitment to ensuring CentCom employees "continue speaking truth to power." In a press release, the joint task force stated the investigations "should signal to employees throughout the intelligence community that appropriate and responsive mechanisms exist to bring concerns forward."

I doubt that waiting two years for the whistleblower's "urgent" concerns to be dismissed as misperceptions (especially after the joint task force found them valid), to prattle about leadership's self-reported improvements and to do nothing to explore witness intimidation or retaliation is the "signal" the task force suggests.

In my client's case, the Defense Department's inspector general turned my client's complaint over to the Defense Intelligence Agency's inspector general — who is Facebook friends with a key official my client alleged retaliated. Needless to say, we can predict the end of the story.

Debra D'Agostino is a federal employment attorney and founding partner of the Federal Practice Group in Washington.

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