This article, featuring our national security analyst Irvin McCullough, was originally published here.
Rare External Investigation Finds Wrongdoing in the CIA’s Watchdog Office
On a spring day in late April 2014, officials at the CIA’s watchdog office slapped yellow crime-scene tape and heavy-duty combination locks on an employee’s office door after security walked him out of the building for allegedly accessing information he wasn’t supposed to have.
But more than five years later, external investigators reviewed the case and concluded that Andrew Bakaj, a former attorney in the CIA Office of the Inspector General, was retaliated against by his bosses who were hoping to expose and ferret out whistleblowers inside the office.
A new unclassified summary of a years-long investigation conducted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, which does not cite Bakaj by name, says that the CIA watchdog “opened a ‘retaliatory investigation’” into an employee who was cooperating with a separate review of the office.
At the time, the intelligence community’s inspector general, which conducts independent audits and reviews across the spy agencies, was investigating concerns about potential evidence manipulation at the CIA inspector general’s office, issues that Bakaj and others, some of whom still remain anonymous, had raised.
The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general was called in to make an impartial decision about whether Bakaj’s resulting administrative suspension and loss of clearance was retaliation for cooperating with investigators.
Mark Zaid, Bakaj’s attorney and a co-founder of Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit law office, confirmed that his client is the subject of the summary. “The CIA retaliated against Bakaj, a national security whistleblower, and has finally been held to account for its misconduct.”
While the CIA’s watchdog office rarely makes headlines, it serves an important internal oversight role within the intelligence community. Since President Trump was elected, the directors of the 17 intelligence agencies have been under pressure to not question or contradict the president, and those who have done so, like the president’s Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and his second-in-command Sue Gordon, have been forced to leave.
However, complicated questions over who watches the watchers, and how to protect whistleblowers with access to classified information, had persisted over many years prior to Trump’s election. Many believe that protecting whistleblowers and supporting their ability to go through the proper channels to raise concerns could prevent major leaks like the 2013 disclosure of classified NSA documents by former contractor Edward Snowden.
“The U.S. government should promote the success of this national security whistleblower action in order to deter any future Ed Snowdens,” said Zaid, Bakaj’s attorney.
The inspector general system within the intelligence community has several layers. Each agency has its own inspector general to investigate and audit matters ranging from fraud to the CIA’s rendition and interrogation program. There is also an inspector general who coordinates community-wide reviews within the office of the director of national intelligence.
When Bakaj started at the CIA in 2012, he was directed to ensure the agency was complying with President Barack Obama’s new directive to protect whistleblowers with access to classified information who expose fraud, waste and abuse. His subsequent dismissal and attempts at redemption demonstrate the problems with protecting whistleblowers with access to classified information.
According to four sources familiar with the matter, Bakaj’s problems began in 2014 when his colleagues approached him about concerns that multiple senior employees at the CIA inspector general’s office were involved in facilitating or covering up evidence mishandling in one of its investigations of a contractor. Bakaj ended up speaking with colleagues at the intelligence community inspector general’s (ICIG) office about the concerns, some of which made their way to Congress.
Bakaj’s superiors at the CIA watchdog office subsequently interfered in interviews with the ICIG, according to the sources, in order to try and find out who the whistleblowers were. Afterward, Bakaj’s security clearance was suspended and he was put on administrative leave. He didn’t work for over a year before he decided to retire and enter private practice — he is now a managing partner at Compass Rose Legal Group — but he has not given up on getting to the bottom of what happened.
Bakaj was not alone in his complaints about the CIA’s inspector general. Jonathan Kaplan, another former investigator in the CIA’s watchdog office, filed his own reprisal complaints against the agency in 2015.
The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s inspector general is handling his investigation. Kaplan says he doesn’t expect to hear the outcome until winter, but hopes for a similar result.
“While ‘reprisal’ affects me on a personal level, the real issue is how to improve protections for whistleblowers across government and the intelligence community specifically,” Kaplan wrote in an email. “Existing policy was inadequate to protect Andrew and I.”
Prior to the publication of DHS’s conclusions, acting CIA Inspector General Christopher Sharpley resigned in the summer of 2018. During his congressional confirmation hearing, he testified that he was unaware of any reprisal complaints against him. ProPublica reported that he may have misled Congress, and was aware of the ongoing investigations into not just Bakaj’s case but Kaplan’s as well, citing letters from their attorneys sent to Congress.
The CIA declined to comment on the new DHS inspector general report, but asserted its confidence in Sharpley after his resignation.
Dan Meyer, the former head of whistleblower engagement at the intelligence community inspector general’s office, declined to comment on the specifics of Bakaj’s case. However, he described DHS’s finding as “ominous,” particularly because there are other public examples of inspectors general retaliating against their employees. The trend “shows a decline in professionalism among IGs,” wrote Meyer in a statement.
President Trump has not appointed a full-time chief to lead the CIA inspector general’s office. The acting inspector general, Christine Ruppert, served as legal counsel to the office at the time the agency closed Bakaj’s original reprisal complaint in 2015.
While the full conclusions and recommendations of the DHS inspector general remain classified, the public substantiation of wrongdoing at the highest levels of the CIA’s watchdog office is significant.
“Whistleblowers need engaged guardians inside the government — and that requires a trustworthy arbiter to protect them,” wrote Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst for the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit whistleblower protection organization. “Andrew has dedicated his career to building a bridge for the whistleblowers who come after him, and inspectors general across the community should take note of this landmark finding.”