President Trump’s nominee to be the Central Intelligence Agency’s Inspector General—its top independent watchdog—is named in at least three open whistleblower retaliation cases, the Project On Government Oversight has learned. The nominee, Christopher Sharpley, faces a confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee tomorrow.
Sharpley became the CIA’s Deputy Inspector General in 2012 and has been the CIA’s Acting Inspector General since 2015 after the departure of David Buckley, who was appointed to head the office under President Obama. Sharpley attracted headlines last year when he deleted the agency’s only copy of a controversial Senate report documenting the CIA’s history of using interrogation techniques involving torture, embarrassing the Agency and prolonging its dispute over the issue with Congress.
One of the most important duties of an Inspector General is to enforce high professional and ethical standards in their agency. Yet in Sharpley’s case the White House has selected a leader of the CIA’s key watchdog division—which depends on whistleblowers to report waste, fraud, and other abuses—someone who has several unresolved allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers. Two of the complaints were lodged with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, and a third is now before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
All three complainants had brought earlier employment law claims that did not prevail. The three current cases claim retaliation, a different offense than previously alleged. One case also charges sex and age discrimination.
It remains unclear whether Sharpley or the CIA has disclosed to Congress a complete list of the open matters, or any details concerning them. If not, Congress may still learn about them through other avenues: key members of a confirming committee are often provided any FBI files that contain details of cases involving the nominee, potentially including criminal or administrative matters. Such material, if it is available, is likely to be of interest for the Senate Intelligence Committee, which must examine Sharpley’s fitness for office, as well as to members of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus and of the full Senate, who will be required to vote on his confirmation.
The CIA would not reveal what, if anything, may have been disclosed to Congress concerning Sharpley, but a spokesman did issue a statement to POGO.
Sharpley “has 36 years of investigative, law enforcement and IG experience,” a CIA spokesman told POGO. “His credentials and qualifications to be CIA IG are obvious and substantial. We look forward to his quick and justified confirmation.”
“Whether there are any complaints or investigations regarding Mr. Sharpley is not something we could confirm or comment on. What we can say is that Mr. Sharpley has had a sterling 5-year career at CIA and there have never been any findings of wrongdoing or misconduct of any sort by Mr. Sharpley during his tenure here,” the CIA spokesman said.
POGO also reached out to Sharpley’s former boss, David Buckley. Citing the open matters at issue, he declined to comment.
A senior Republican Senate staffer who spoke to POGO made it clear that Congress has a need-to-know: “There’s no question that information about outstanding retaliation cases involving Sharpley should be fully disclosed before members of Congress are asked to approve such a key CIA official.”
One of the whistleblowers who has complained about Sharpley is Jonathan Kaplan, a recently retired 33-year veteran investigator at the Agency. He alleges that he was retaliated against by Sharpley and others because of his legally protected communications with the Senate and House Committees on Intelligence and with the Intelligence Community’s Office of the Inspector General.
Kaplan says he had gone to the Committees and others with a concern that the CIA IG’s investigative and oversight capabilities were being compromised. Soon after, he said, retaliators including Sharpley placed false and derogatory information in his personal security file at the Agency, leading to the loss of his security clearance, rendering his continued CIA employment untenable. “From my personal observation and experience, Mr. Sharpley condoned retaliatory actions against CIA employees including me, indicating that ethical and professional standards are not being met,” Kaplan said.
Internal Intelligence Document: Spy Agencies Don’t Follow Law or Regulation
The Sharpley nomination comes at a time when the Intelligence Community’s handling of whistleblowers has begun to attract increasing questions from lawmakers and the public. In one instance earlier this year, the Department of Defense overruled the firing of George Ellard, Inspector General of the National Security Agency, even after a high-level appeals panel found he had retaliated against a subordinate.
Ellard’s case highlights the Intelligence Community’s continuing struggle to deal with the issue effectively.
Yet the creation of a workable internal whistleblower system has become a priority following the damaging and highly classified leaks of Edward Snowden and others, who have claimed fear of retaliation to justify making their own public disclosures, instead of going through designated internal channels.
In that context, Sharpley’s alleged acts of retaliation form part of a broader pattern plaguing America’s spy agencies, a pattern cited in a document obtained by POGO that was also supplied to Congress.
The document dated February 2017, appears on the official letterhead of the Office of the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community and details what it describes as serious flaws in procedures used to investigate retaliation cases across the Intelligence Community. Bearing the title, “Evaluation of Reprisal Protections Pertaining to Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information,” it is unclassified. The author’s name is redacted.
Its conclusion is stark: “The deficiencies in reprisal protections policies, procedures, and standards in the evaluated agencies are causing a failure to provide reprisal protections for individuals making protected disclosures.” In the context of the document, “protected disclosures” refer to legally sanctioned revelations of alleged wrongdoing by intelligence employees to their superiors or others in the government designated to receive the information.
The document states that, “A complainant alleging reprisal for making a protected disclosure has a minimal chance to have a complaint processed and adjudicated in a timely and complete manner….”
In response to damaging leaks, then-President Obama issued Presidential Policy Directive 19 (PPD-19), parts of which were enacted into law, establishing procedures under which whistleblowers could report waste, fraud, and abuse without fear of retaliation.
But the document produced by the Intelligence Community’s IG, which covers 17 U.S. spy agencies, found that many components are not following, “legally mandated … policies, procedures and standards…. Causing non-substantiation of reprisal claims, incomplete investigations, and for complaints not to be processed.” The document says “these deficiencies are significantly undermining the intent of PPD-19 and strongly suggest that there has been no impact by PPD-19 to protect whistleblowers in the evaluated agencies.”
As evidence, the document reports that the Intelligence Community IG substantiated “only one reprisal allegation” during a six-year period stretching from fiscal year 2010 through fiscal year 2016, and that case took 742 days to complete—well beyond the 240-day limit prescribed in regulation. The document does not mention the substantiated retaliation case against Ellard, the NSA IG, whose termination was subsequently overturned.
A spokesperson for the Intelligence Community IG offered no comment.
Turmoil In CIA Investigations
Sharpley’s alleged acts of retaliation appear to spring from a little-known period when an investigation unit of the CIA’s Office of Inspector General was experiencing unusual turmoil.
According to a series of memoranda and other records obtained by POGO, including some documents previously posted by the website GovernmentAttic.org, the conflict began following then-President Obama’s appointment of David Buckley, a former Congressional staffer, as CIA Inspector General in 2010. Buckley recruited Sharpley as his deputy, and the pair executed wide-ranging personnel and management changes in the office’s investigation division, then staffed with more than 30 people. Among other things, the changes were designed to introduce criminal investigation techniques in which many staff were untrained.
One employee’s memo from October 2012 cites actions featuring an element of “cruelty and malice” by IG management as sweeping changes were imposed on a group of veteran investigators, many of whom were over 40, a fact that later led to charges of age discrimination. Beyond that, some memos cite a “hostile work environment,” and “abruptly relieving certain managers and investigators of substantive investigative case work.” At another point, the memo says, “The reorganization … is the latest in a series of intimidating and bullying tactics employed to move out current INV (investigation division) staff members and make room for new hires.”
One member of the INV staff told POGO that Sharpley was the office “enforcer.” Another memo describes an occasion when Sharpley and a colleague summarily disbanded an INV unit —as its four senior staffers were told to join a newly-created group to investigate leaks. “There is only one problem,” the memo goes on to say, “this OIG has no ongoing leak investigations. So, these senior special agents and managers hardly have any meaningful reasons to show up to work, except for preserving their spaces until they are graciously ushered out the door by Buckley and/or Sharpley.”
At another point, the memo accuses CIA IG management of “misuse of position, abuse of resources, including unnecessary use of IG subpoenas, corruption, waste of taxpayer funds, and more. These are the very elements than an IG is expected to prevent and protect the Agency against.”
Buckley and his management team, including Sharpley, were well aware of their employees’ discontent. Roughly ten or more complaints were brought to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission unit inside the CIA to consider evidence of workplace violations, but did not return findings that supported the claims. In 2014, Buckley and Sharpley referred some of the matters to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE)—a federal government-wide group comprised of all Inspectors General created by law. It declined to look into the matter, but brought in an outside examiner to do a report. That report found only minor deficiencies.
However, some of these same matters involving Sharpley, POGO has been told, are still being reviewed by the Intelligence Community IG as part of still-open retaliation complaints against him. One case involving Sharpley is slated to be reviewed by an administrative judge of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Underscoring the stakes, Senator Angus King (I-ME) said in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last year that the inspector general is “one of the most important positions in government, particularly in the intelligence agencies, which don't have the oversight that other more public agencies do.”