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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Time to End the Silent Suffering—Whistleblower Protections in the Military

Soldiers who have been working closely with the Army’s battlefield intelligence network say the reportedly successful program is really a dud, describing it as “a huge, bloated, excessively expensive money pit.” In fact, the three soldiers who talked to Politico about the flaws of this program had much to say—just not their names. They spoke under a strict condition of confidentiality, as their very careers are at risk. This is just the latest incident drawing attention to the need for enhanced protections for those who expose waste, fraud, and abuse in our military.

Another particularly disturbing instance of misconduct has finally caught the nation’s attention—widespread and largely unreported sexual assault in the military. A moving and troubling documentary and winner of the Ridenhour Documentary Film Prize this year, The Invisible War tells the harrowing stories of service members who have suffered from rampant sexual assault. According to the film, women in combat zones are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy. Similar findings are described in a military survey that reports widespread rape and assault within the ranks. An estimated 26,000 members of the military (up from 19,000) were victims of sexual assault last year, while only 3,374 cases were reported. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on June 4 to examine the pervasive problem.

And other members of Congress are concerned. Last week, Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and co-sponsor Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced a bill that would expand protections for military whistleblowers and those who report sexual assault in the military. This legislation will give victims and other witnesses to wrongdoing the protections they need to come forward without fear of retaliation. Expanding military whistleblower protections has the strong support of the Project On Government Oversight, and, as Public Policy Director Angela Canterbury said in a news release last week, the proposed protections are “long overdue.”

The Military Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2013 aims to fix a broken system and protect those who come forward about sexual assault in the military. “Service members should not be victimized in the first place, but when it does occur, there should be a culture in place that supports speaking-out. Unfortunately, that culture does not exist today,” said Senator Warner. An unacceptably high percentage—62 percent—of military members who reported sexual abuse last year said they faced retaliation for their courage. This practice needs to stop.

The bill addresses some of the weaknesses in current military whistleblower protections pinpointed in a 2012 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report which highlights the retaliation faced by many who blow the whistle on waste, fraud, and abuse. The GAO report also estimates that 70 percent of Department of Defense Inspector General investigations into military whistleblower reprisal claims took longer than the 180-day time frame required by law.

POGO has long been aware of the stifling retaliation facing whistleblowers in the military. We have repeatedly drawn attention to the need for improvements to the wholly inadequate Military Whistleblower Protection Act. We are pleased to see Senators Warner and Kaine recognize the importance of having more safety for our troops and more accountability for wrongdoing in the military.

The legislation would ensure:

  • More disclosures of wrongdoing are protected—including those made during one’s normal job duties, in the chain of command, or regarding sexual assault and other misconduct.
  • Service members have the same shot at proving they have suffered retribution that has long been the standard for other federal employees and private sector whistleblowers.
  • Those affected have a reasonable opportunity to file a complaint (the bill extends the current 60-day statute of limitations to one year).
  • A more credible review process is put into place to streamline requests for hearings before the Board for the Correction of Military Records to correct the service record of those who suffer retaliation (currently only 19 percent take efforts to correct their records).
  • That action must be taken by an Inspector General to make a determination of retaliation, and for the military to both provide corrective relief to service members who suffer retaliation and to discipline those who retaliate—accountability formerly lacking in military whistleblower law.

This legislation will go a long way to change the culture from one of silent suffering to one of addressing problems when they arise and providing authentic protections to those who report wrongdoing. We hope that a companion bill will soon be introduced in the House. We also urge the Senate Armed Services Committee to include these critical reforms in the National Defense Authorization Act when it is considered next month.