The Pentagon Must Protect Whistleblowers

The grisly details continue to drip out. Five American soldiers have been accused of setting up “kills” and murdering innocent Afghans earlier this year, according to charges filed by the U.S. Army against them. But could some of the murders have been stopped earlier? And could potential whistleblowers within the military’s chain of command have been protected?

The parents of one of the accused soldiers, Army Spc. Adam Winfield, have been asking these questions. After the Cape Coral, Florida couple’s son told them about the first killing, Chris and Emma Winfield say they tried to reach out to various Army offices in February.

At one of the Army offices where someone answered the phone, Chris Winfield said he was told his son would have to make his disclosures while in the field or wait four months until he returned from Afghanistan to blow the whistle safely. Chris Winfield was also told his son would have to go through the chain of command – but the chain of command involved the alleged ringleader of the murders.

In theory, military whistleblowers are supposed to have safe channels to report perceived wrongdoing without the fear of retaliation. However, the reality has been tragically disappointing.

Much of the problem lies with the Pentagon’s investigative bodies, which are supposed to help whistleblowers. They rarely side with whistleblowers and end up withholding protection instead.

For instance, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) was critical of the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General (DOD IG) in its handling of the case of Navy officer Jason Hudson. After speaking out against a 2002 recruitment policy that favored white candidates over Latinos and blacks, Hudson was removed from his job overseeing Navy recruiters and received a negative performance evaluation.

“The failure of oversight on the part of the DOD IG has had a detrimental impact on Hudson’s career,” Grassley said in an October 2008 letter to the IG. “A good Navy officer was apparently harmed for blowing the whistle on an illegal recruiting policy implemented by a Navy admiral who was never held accountable for his questionable actions.”

Anecdotes only tell part of the tale. A 2008 report by Grassley reveals that the Pentagon inspector general “rejected claims of retaliation and stood by the military in more than 90 percent of nearly 3,000 cases during the past six years,” according to an Associated Press article.

These numbers are too low. Most experts think a well-functioning whistleblower system should find at least partial merit in around a quarter of whistleblower cases that claim retaliation.

One of the major hurdles military whistleblowers face in trying to prove they were retaliated against is the higher evidentiary threshold they must cross compared to civilian whistleblowers.

The Pentagon’s military reprisal unit needs more staff to investigate complaints fully and improved policies and procedures, according to a July 2009 review by a Justice Department oversight office.

The problems Grassley identified in 2008 continue. According to a report it released earlier this year, only 11 out of 274 cases received by the inspector general’s military reprisals unit from October 2009 to the end of March 2010 had one or more allegations of reprisal substantiated. That works out to only a 4 percent rate of success for military whistleblowers for that time period.

As Congress begins preparing its agenda for next year, it should consider how to improve whistleblower protections, including for those in the military.

We need whistleblowers and their vital insider insights to uncover some of the worst abuses and to head off others, such as the murders of innocents in war zones. But will we protect those who have sworn their lives to defend us?

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.

Author: Nick Schwellenbach

Nick Schwellenbach is the director of investigations at the Project on Government Oversight.