Senator Begins Inquiry into Navy Admiral’s Whistleblower Retaliation

Photograph of Senator McCaskill during hearing.
(Photo by Flickr user Senator Claire McCaskill used with permission via Creative Commons.)

One of the most significant failures of current military whistleblower protections is how infrequently those who retaliate against whistleblowers are held accountable. Last week The Washington Post reported on the latest example, Navy Rear Admiral Brian L. Losey. The Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG) found he had retaliated against staff members he suspected were whistleblowers. Now Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) is asking the Navy to explain why it has failed to hold Rear Admiral Losey accountable.  

As the Post recounts, the reprisals came after an anonymous complaint alleging Rear Admiral Losey had improperly used taxpayer funds to pay for a plane ticket for one of his family members. The allegation was dismissed—he had paid for the ticket himself. But “enraged by what he saw as an act of disloyalty, the admiral became determined to find out who had reported him,” and drew up an “enemies list.” One witness told the DoD IG that Losey vowed to “cut the head off this snake and we’ll end this.”

It appeared Losey also wanted to discourage other whistleblowers from coming forward. “If you continue to undermine my authority as a commander, I’m going to bury each one of them,” one witness alleged Losey told his staff. “I’m going to come after them, and I’m going to [make] it very unpleasant.”

Altogether, the IG concluded that Losey had illegally retaliated against whistleblowers in three of the five cases it investigated. The Navy disagreed with the IG’s findings, and no disciplinary actions were taken.

“Failure to hold individuals accountable for taking actions against whistleblowers discourages others from coming forward, which is unacceptable,” Senator McCaskill wrote in her letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

As the Post pointed out, it is extremely rare for DoD IG to substantiate whistleblower reprisal complaints. In one year DoD IG closed 1,196 whistleblower cases, only substantiating 3 percent. A 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that in the rare circumstance a military whistleblower case was substantiated, only 19 percent applied to have their records corrected.

Graph of Whistleblower Reprisal Numbers ending March 31, 2015

Source: The Washington Post analysis of DoD IG Semiannual Reports
(Available here and here)

One reason senior officials are infrequently held accountable for whistleblower retaliation is the DoD IG’s refusal to make most substantiated reports of misconduct by senior officials and officers public. Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) added an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2015 to require the DoD IG to release these reports, but it was removed in conference.

In the case of Rear Admiral Losey, DoD IG had not responded to The Washington Post’s Freedom of Information Act request for the report. Instead, the paper received copies of the report “from sources upset with the Navy’s decision not to take action against Losey.”

As we’ve written before, current protections for military whistleblowers are woefully insufficient. Whistleblowers are pivotal to Congress’s ability to conduct its constitutional oversight duties and to the effective operations of our government. For credible protections for military whistleblowers, Congress should pass the Legal Justice for Servicemembers Act, and both the Defense Department and Congress must step up to hold officials accountable for illegally retaliating against whistleblowers.

Photograph of Mandy Smithberger

By: Mandy Smithberger, Director, CDI Straus Military Reform Project

Mandy Smithberger is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.

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