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Government Secrets: Bureaucratic Wars on Who Gets Prosecuted

CIA director Leon Panetta. (Photo: Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill / National Guard)

Part of the Series

Jobs in government mean doing just enough good, but not too much to irritate those in power and lose your job. Writer Dina Rasor says Daniel P. Meyer was a master at the game, but clearly not as masterful as Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense and CIA director.

Rising in the ranks as a government official requires the skill of walking, day after day, on the bureaucratic knife’s edge. No matter how skillful one becomes at this endeavor, the danger of falling is always close at hand. Daniel P. Meyer, former director of Whistleblowing and Transparency at the Department of Defense Inspector General Office (DOD IG), is currently mired in one such cautionary tale.

As an advocate for whistleblowers, I have known and worked with Dan during his decade in the government and watched him get a foothold in the bureaucracy, build a base of “stakeholders” in the bureaucracy and the Congress and build his turf and power. Although his record is not perfect, Dan has occasionally provided help to civilian whistleblowers in a defense bureaucracy that is known to squash them like a bug. Over the decades, I have worked with other staffers in the DOD IG – people who wanted to do some good – but, as I often told frustrated whistleblowers, jobs in government mean doing just enough good, but not too much to irritate those in power and lose your job. Dan was a master at the game.

Being a “master” didn’t mean he always used his powers for good. At one point, he gained the confidence of one of the whistleblowers I worked with and tried to reason with a DOD contractor powerhouse that was trying to crush the whistleblower’s inconvenient truth-telling. Dan failed miserably. He was trying to appease both a formidable company and an IG bureaucracy that feared that company – all while thinking that he might help the whistleblower. He ended up exchanging privileged information with the whistleblower’s enemies, and it was a calamity. He damaged the whistleblower by continuing the bureaucratic game of trying to please all sides. But while this maneuver hurt the whistleblower, it helped keep Dan balanced on that bureaucratic knife’s edge.

One of the signs that Dan had advanced up the power ladder in his field was when he was assigned – or “detailed” in Pentagon language – to become the executive director of intelligence community whistleblowing and source protection, in July 2013. He was assigned to implement some of President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive 19, to attempt to appease outraged supporters and others on his heavy-handed actions and prosecutions of national security whistleblowers.

This was an especially important position, because the appointment took place during the storms of controversy in the intelligence agencies over the leaks by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. According to the website Government Executive, six months before he took the new job, Dan had been asked by the acting Defense Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks to “lead an interagency working group preparing national security-related agencies’ response to Presidential Policy Directive 19. That White House order signed last October extends protections to national security whistleblowers not provided in the main law.”

Dan was now playing at a higher level in this new detail. He was working with the intelligence community, the DOD and the White House, dealing with high-security information and the whistleblowers who had leaked it. Not bad for 10 years of working in bureaucracies – especially the DOD IG, which was known for its factional fighting and turf wars. Little did Dan realize that he was about to fall off that knife’s edge.

A High-Level Breach

Let us shift our attention, momentarily, to Leon Panetta – a man who has not had to play a game for power for decades. High-level jobs have been shoved at him with each Democratic president, after his long stint in Congress. He was the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and chief of staff for President Clinton, and CIA director and secretary of defense for President Obama. During his term as CIA director, he oversaw the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, which was seen as one of the Obama administration’s top victories. Panetta had been at the top of the list of Washington players for decades.

Panetta was excited about the Bin Laden capture and urged the intelligence and DOD bureaucracies to cooperate with the director and producers who were making a movie about the supersecret operation. The film, Zero Dark Thirty, promised to be Obama’s equivalent of Jack Kennedy’s PT 109 movie and would also make the other players in the Bin Laden capture, including Panetta, look like heroes too.

In June of 2011, Panetta held a closed ceremony at the CIA headquarters to honor the participants in the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s headquarters. According to a story written by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), based on a draft DOD IG report that was leaked to POGO, Panetta breached security by offering up highly classified material while giving his speech at the event. (Full disclosure: I am the founder of POGO and still serve on its board of directors.)

POGO’s Adam Zagorin reported that:

“During this awards ceremony, Director Panetta specifically recognized the unit that conducted the raid and identified the ground commander by name,” the draft report says. “According to the DoD Office of Security Review, the individual’s name is protected from public release” under federal law, the report says.

“Director Panetta also provided DoD information, identified by relevant Original Classification Authorities as TOP SECRET//SI//REL TO USA, AUS, CAN, GBR, NZL, as well as, SECRET/ACCM,” the report says.

It is not clear that Panetta knew that there was an unauthorized person in the audience, but a screenwriter, Mark Boal, working on Zero Dark Thirty, who did not have a clearance of any kind, had been invited to attend the event. According to POGO:

The IG report says special operations personnel were not pleased to discover that an outsider was at the CIA event. At a reception following the ceremony, Admiral William H. McRaven, one of the raid’s overseers, was introduced to a person “identified as the maker of The Hurt Locker,” the draft report says. “ADM McRaven and DoD special operators present were all ‘universally surprised and shocked’ that a Hollywood executive attended this CIA Headquarters awards ceremony.”

“ADM McRaven informed us he was concerned about the possible release of the special operators’ identities,” the draft report says.

As secrecy surrounding the raid eroded, in part through the appearance of a filmmaker at the CIA event, the military became increasingly concerned that participants in the raid could be targeted for terrorist retaliation. The report notes that McRaven held a meeting with families of special operators to tell them that “additional protective monitoring” would be provided and “to call security personnel if they sensed anything.”

Panetta claimed that he did not know that a screenwriter for the movie was in the audience. However, later, after he became secretary of defense in mid-2011, he emphasized that people associated with Zero Dark Thirty were to be accommodated by the government to a high extent. As POGO wrote from the DOD IG report:

… the IG report describes how the Obama Administration threw its support behind a Hollywood project depicting one of President Obama’s most dramatic triumphs, the nighttime SEAL team assault on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where bin Laden – referred to as “UBL” – had been hiding.

After Panetta became secretary of defense, senior Panetta aides implored a resistant Special Operations Command to assist, according to the draft IG report.

“Secretary Panetta wants the Department to cooperate fully with the makers of the UBL movie,” a Pentagon undersecretary emailed the head of Special Operations, according to the report.

Emailing a senior Pentagon colleague during the summer of 2011, defense department spokesman George Little offered a glimpse of Panetta’s enthusiasm. “I hope they get Pacino to play [Secretary Panetta],” the report quotes Little as having written. “That’s what he wants, no joke!”

This aforementioned IG report was a result of a request in August 2011 by the then-chairman of the House Committee Homeland Security, Rep. Peter King (R-NY). Although the DOD IG began its investigation in December 2011, the investigation went slowly to the frustration of both Rep. King and to POGO, which was monitoring its progress. In June 2013, POGO received a draft report from an anonymous source. The report demonstrated that Mr. Panetta, wittingly or unwittingly, had released classified material that could potentially endanger the military personnel that performed the Bin Laden mission. Panetta declared at various times that he did nothing wrong, but the draft report was out and put on POGO’s website for public viewing. The DOD IG was now in the position of embarrassing Secretary Panetta before they had a chance to soften the report. Now the IG had a new mission and it wasn’t to try to correct Panetta’s security breach – it was to find out how POGO got the report.

Having worked with leaked draft reports before from the DOD, usually the DOD bureaucracy feels like it has to then issue the final report with most of the information, charges and conclusions intact with only a few fig leaves. That is what makes draft reports so valuable, because they have often committed truth and not yet gone through the political Cuisinart and turned to useless pabulum. Not so, when you are looking at protecting a secretary of defense with close ties to the White House.

Amazingly, 10 days after POGO put the draft report on its website, the DOD IG issued the final report, taking out all references to Leon Panetta’s classified disclosure and mainly talking about the DOD helping with the movie. The DOD IG press person said that the draft report was a “pre-decisional working draft,” and that even though they had interviewed and investigated Panetta’s role in the classified documents, they referred the matter to the CIA IG, where reports are usually secret. Panetta had retired back to his university think tank and walnut farm in California four months before this report was issued. It is good to be king of the two agencies that were investigating you, even if it is in a retirement mode.

Adding insult to injury, the IG staff who had issued the final report on June 14, with no references to Panetta, received a “Team of the Year” award for their redacted final report, in a closed ceremony two days before the de-Panettaized final report was issued, according to a story in Bloomberg News. The DOD IG, it seemed, wanted to make sure that everyone realized that this report with the redacted material was part of a team effort and everyone should be a team player.

Almost every whistleblower I have worked with has been accused of not being a “team player”: code for not going along with the powers that be in the bureaucracy, whether they are right or wrong.

Off the Knife’s Edge

With the Panetta mess tied up with a neat bow, the DOD IG higher-ups turned to the real danger in their minds: Who leaked the unclassified draft report to POGO? The IG investigated its own employees after POGO posted the unclassified draft report on its website, but was unable to find the source of the leak to POGO. In the course of its investigation, Dan Meyer told the investigators from the DOD IG that he had given the draft report to two oversight committees in Congress – the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee – during a meeting with another IG staff member in December 2012. At that moment, Dan fell off the knife’s edge with the bureaucracy he has played so well for over 10 years.

Dan disclosed that he might be in trouble at a Georgetown seminar in February 2014. The transcript of the seminar was obtained by Firedoglake, and it shows that Dan thought it was part of his job to give, when requested, unclassified information to Congress. According to Dan’s biography on LinkedIn (his official DOD biography cannot be located on the IG website), part of his DOD IG job was, “Serves as liaison to Executive branch agencies and Legislative stakeholders in the federal whistleblowing process.”

When he told the audience of the seminar that he was possibly in trouble, Dan also mentioned that he thought that he was giving the report to the oversight committees on behalf of his boss, as reported by Firedoglake:

“I have been found actually to have made an unauthorized disclosure to the Congress with the insider threat protocol. It was on Zero Dark Thirty. So I can’t really comment on some of the investigations, but I was completely shocked when I saw that finding because in doing what I did with both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee I was working at the behest of my boss.”

Firedoglake went on to note:

…Meyer believes that whistleblowers “complete the constitutional feedback loop.”

“Whistleblowers are the transmission between the Congress and the people. So, when a whistleblower comes to me and they want to go to the Congress,” they are completing a key component of this country’s representative democracy.

However, the DOD IG is in total battle mode over this “unauthorized disclosure” by Dan. An internal memorandum, written by Deputy Chief of Staff Brett Mansfield, was leaked to POGO to show what was in store for Dan for not being a “team player.” From POGO’s report:

The memorandum from Brett A. Mansfield, deputy chief of staff at the IG’s office, refers to “the unauthorized disclosure of an OIG draft report” without identifying the report; people familiar with the matter said that was a reference to the investigation involving Panetta. The memorandum also spelled out strictures against sharing unpublished IG reports with Congress.

For example, it says, “In general the OIG does not provide draft reports to outside stakeholders to include members of Congress and their staff.” It adds that Meyer was “reminded of his responsibility to ensure the protection of sensitive information to include information marked For Official Use Only (FOUO),” a designation commonly employed to keep various kinds of unclassified material from public release. It says that “the lack of FOUO markings does not make information automatically releasable” – implying that releasing information to Congress is not an official use. It discusses restrictions on “draft and pre-decisional information.” And it says that the only people who had the authority to approve Meyer’s disclosure to Congress were the inspector general or a particular subordinate.

The memo seems to convey that sharing information with Congress is subject to some of the same restrictions as releasing information to the public.

It is ironic that the top powers of the DOD IG were so exercised about Dan giving an unmarked but possible For Official Use Only (FOUO) report to the appropriate Congressional oversight committees, while Panetta spewed out highly classified details with an uncleared movie screenwriter in the audience. I have, along with most of the Washington media, been publishing and distributing leaked FOUO documents for decades. My FOUO documents leaked out of the Pentagon included embarrassing audits on overruns, investigations of fraud, and even detailed test reports on the mechanical and technical failures on weapons such as the M-1 tank. The Pentagon was always intent on finding my internal sources, but it was because I was embarrassing them. Not once did they accuse me of hurting national security, because they knew that sensitive information and even benign information would be stamped secret by a heavy handed classified stamper in the DOD.

IG Deputy Chief of Staff Mansfield claimed that even though the document didn’t have the FOUO markings, Dan should have known the documents should have been stamped that way. This claim is just one step down from the ridiculous ploy that the DOD tried during the Reagan and Bush I Administrations by having DOD workers sign a nondisclosure agreement that they would get in trouble for leaking “classifiable” documents, i.e. documents that were not marked classified but could be classified in the future.

Dan now faces suspension and the revoking of his secret security clearance for passing on unclassified information to the oversight committees of Congress, while Leon Panetta has his reputation intact despite citing deeply classified information to an unsecured crowd. Because Dan was detailed to work for the Intelligence Community inspector general to implement some of Obama’s new, albeit weak, protections for national security whistleblowers, being suspended will ruin his carefully crafted job and power climb. Losing his security clearance for not even distributing classified material will ruin his whole career.

We Should Not Forgive the Bureaucracy

Is the current IG retaliating against Dan because he backed the wrong bosses in his 10 years at DOD IG? Or is this controversy an excuse to drive him from his interest and zeal to implement the president’s new directives? Or, perhaps, is the IG using Dan to hoist his head on a petard to show others in the DOD, the DOD IG and the rest of the government bureaucracies that you are never to give any information, even when asked, to the oversight committees of Congress because it could embarrass your boss, your department head or even a powerhouse Defense secretary like Leon Panetta?

It is impossible to know. But all these scenarios are possible. I have been following the palace intrigue in the DOD IG for decades, and it is a fractionized organization that also has competing protectors in Congress. Dan has some of that protection, but as the father of the nuclear navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover (who was no saint) has said, “If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”

So is there any solution to this? Usually, I try to find simple and doable changes to fix a governmental problem. But this problem is everywhere. It is the same problem we see in relation to Wall Street: No one will prosecute the companies and individuals that helped wreck our country’s economy in 2008. It is the same problem we see in military contracting: Large DOD contractors get away with producing grossly overpriced weapons that can fail and kill soldiers, while the overseeing military generals watch with a wink and a nod.

This is all part of a sad story about power, power in the government due to position and power in the bureaucracy that is sought by many lower-level government employees. Just like troops become very disillusioned when they see their leaders, their generals, suck up to defense companies while ignoring the troops needs and safety, middle of the road government bureaucrats, even ones in oversight organizations like the DOD IG, get disillusioned when they can never do the right thing and get away with it.

If the Congress and others put pressure on the DOD IG to not take action against a conforming employee like Dan Meyer, it may set a better example for others who have to make daily decisions on sources and whistleblowers that bring them evidence of wrongdoing. It would also help establish that the Congress has a right to ask executive branch department employees for information that they must have to do even the most basic of oversight. Government workers need to see that they can bring wrongdoing to Congress under protection. Congress needs to establish its rights again for access to executive branch information. If Dan loses, Congress also loses some of its power.

Daniel P. Meyer may survive this ordeal – but his upward mobility in the bureaucracy is over. He will not be forgiven. In turn, we should not forgive the bureaucracy that allowed Leon Panetta to walk away without even a blip in his reputation.

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