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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Senate Intelligence Committee Reaffirms Need for NRO Whistleblower Protections

Irvin McCullough, June 09, 2016

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) may receive its first congressionally approved Inspector General (IG).

Susan Gibson, an intelligence lawyer nominated by President Obama, appeared before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Tuesday as the top choice for the job. Some members needed reassurance regarding Ms. Gibson’s plans for acquisition management and cost-effective contracts, but four members asked questions that differentiated themselves from the crowd. They asked about whistleblowers and independence.

Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) voiced her concerns over recent press reports detailing reprisal against Veterans’ Affairs whistleblowers and asked “what [Ms. Gibson] would do to ensure Inspector General access and scrutiny of whistleblower complaints” within the NRO.

Ms. Gibson responded with a two-step plan: encouragement and action. She would encourage whistleblowers to come forward and investigate complaints in a timely manner. Shifting to reprisal, Ms. Gibson recognized the urgency of whistleblower reprisal complaints and promised to report all substantiated allegations to the NRO’s Director.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) echoed his colleagues’ concerns and raised a few of his own. Lambasting a culture of fear at the NRO, he asked if Ms. Gibson understood why approaching the IG with complaints would be frightening to potential NRO whistleblowers and recommended that, if confirmed, she meet with employees to emphasize their protections.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) reaffirmed the importance of whistleblower safety and education. He asked Ms. Gibson how she would educate whistleblowers of the safeguards and protections afforded to them. Ms. Gibson once again detailed her two-step plan.

Then Sen. Rubio went on the offensive: “You stated in your response to a pre-hearing question that there weren’t any challenges facing the NRO IG. However, there are open press accounts that reveal significant cultural impediments to the independence of the OIG. If you’re confirmed, how do you intend to maintain the independence of your office and your staff?”

Responding to the press accounts that include the NRO’s Deputy Director illegally threatening reprisal against whistleblowers during a criminal investigation, Ms. Gibson maintained that her independence would be proven by congressional oversight and the NRO’s existing efforts to curb retaliation.

Further questioning Ms. Gibson’s perceived independence, Senator Angus King (I-ME) reminded her that the role of IG required a presidential nomination–not the NRO’s. When Ms. Gibson referred to NRO leadership as her “partners,” Sen. King sharply criticized that friendly relationship, saying “I’ll tell you what my high school football coach told me: you must be hostile and agile.”

The Government Accountability Project commends these members of Congress for emphasizing whistleblower protections and watchdog independence, especially during the final weeks before congressional recess.