Whistleblower Protection: Actions Needed to Strengthen Selected Intelligence Community Offices of Inspector General Programs

What GAO Found

The six Intelligence Community (IC)-element Offices of Inspectors General (OIG) that GAO reviewed collectively received 5,794 complaints from October 1, 2016, through September 30, 2018, and opened 960 investigations based on those complaints. Of the 960 investigations, IC-element OIGs had closed 873 (about 91 percent) as of August 2019, with an average case time ranging from 113 to 410 days to complete. Eighty-seven cases remained open as of August 2019, with the average open case time being 589 days. The number of investigations at each IC-element OIG varied widely based on factors such as the number of complaints received and each OIG’s determination on when to convert a complaint into an investigation. An OIG may decide not to convert a complaint into an investigation if the complaint lacks credibility or sufficient detail, or may refer the complainant to IC-element management or to another OIG if the complaint involves matters that are outside the OIG’s authority to investigate.

Four of the IC-element OIGs—the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) OIG, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) OIG, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) OIG, and the National Security Agency (NSA) OIG—have a 180-days or fewer timeliness objective for their investigations. The procedures for the remaining two OIGs—the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community (ICIG) and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) OIG—state that investigations should be conducted and reported in a timely manner. Other than those prescribed by statute, the ICIG and NGA OIG have not established timeliness objectives for their investigations. Establishing timeliness objectives could improve the OIGs’ ability to efficiently manage investigation time frames and to inform potential whistleblowers of these time frames.

All of the selected IC-element OIG investigations units have implemented some quality assurance standards and processes, such as including codes of conduct and ethical and professional standards in their guidance. However, the extent to which they have implemented processes to maintain guidance, conduct routine quality assurance reviews, and plan investigations varies (see table).

Implementation of Quality Assurance Standards and Practices by Selected IC-element OIG Investigations Units

 

ICIG

CIA OIG

DIA OIG

NGA OIG

NRO OIG

NSA OIG

Regular updates of investigation guidance or procedures

Internal quality assurance review routinely conducted

External quality assurance review routinely conducted

Required use of documented investigative plans

Legend: ✓ = standard or practice implemented; — = standard or practice not implemented.

Source: GAO analysis of IC-element OIG investigative policies and procedures. | GAO-20-699

  • The Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency’s (CIGIE) Quality Standards for Investigations states that organizations should facilitate due professional care by establishing written investigative policies and procedures via handbooks, manuals, or similar mechanisms that are revised regularly according to evolving laws, regulations, and executive orders. By establishing processes to regularly update their procedures, the ICIG, CIA OIG, DIA OIG, and NRO OIG could better ensure that their policies and procedures will remain consistent with evolving laws, regulations, Executive Orders, and CIGIE standards.
  • Additionally, CIGIE’s Quality Standards for Federal Offices of Inspector General requires OIGs to establish and maintain a quality assurance program.
  • The standards further state that internal and external quality assurance reviews are the two components of an OIG’s quality assurance program, which is an evaluative effort conducted by reviewers independent of the unit being reviewed to ensure that the overall work of the OIG meets appropriate standards. Developing quality assurance programs that incorporate both types of reviews, as appropriate, could help ensure that the IC-element OIGs adhere to OIG procedures and prescribed standards, regulations, and legislation, as well as identify any areas in need of improvement.
  • Further, CIGIE Quality Standards for Investigations states that case-specific priorities must be established and objectives developed to ensure that tasks are performed efficiently and effectively. CIGIE’s standards state that this may best be achieved, in part, by preparing case-specific plans and strategies. Establishing a requirement that investigators use documented investigative plans for all investigations could facilitate NRO OIG management’s oversight of investigations and help ensure that investigative steps are prioritized and performed efficiently and effectively.

CIA OIG, DIA OIG, and NGA OIG have training plans or approaches that are consistent with CIGIE’s quality standards for investigator training. However, while ICIG, NRO OIG, and NSA OIG have basic training requirements and tools to manage training, those OIGs have not established training requirements for their investigators that are linked to the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities, appropriate to their career progression, and part of a documented training plan. Doing so would help the ICIG, NRO OIG, and NSA OIG ensure that their investigators collectively possess a consistent set of professional proficiencies aligned with CIGIE’s quality standards throughout their entire career progression.

Most of the IC-element OIGs GAO reviewed consistently met congressional reporting requirements for the investigations and semiannual reports GAO reviewed. The ICIG did not fully meet one reporting requirement in seven of the eight semiannual reports that GAO reviewed. However, its most recent report, which covers April through September 2019, met this reporting requirement by including statistics on the total number and type of investigations it conducted. Further, three of the six selected IC-element OIGs—the DIA, NGA, and NRO OIGs—did not consistently document notifications to complainants in the reprisal investigation case files GAO reviewed. Taking steps to ensure that notifications to complainants in such cases occur and are documented in the case files would provide these OIGs with greater assurance that they consistently inform complainants of the status of their investigations and their rights as whistleblowers.

Why GAO Did This Study

Whistleblowers play an important role in safeguarding the federal government against waste, fraud, and abuse. The OIGs across the government oversee investigations of whistleblower complaints, which can include protecting whistleblowers from reprisal. Whistleblowers in the IC face unique challenges due to the sensitive and classified nature of their work.

GAO was asked to review whistleblower protection programs managed by selected IC-element OIGs. This report examines (1) the number and time frames of investigations into complaints that selected IC-element OIGs received in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, and the extent to which selected IC-element OIGs have established timeliness objectives for these investigations; (2) the extent to which selected IC-element OIGs have implemented quality standards and processes for their investigation programs; (3) the extent to which selected IC-element OIGs have established training requirements for investigators; and (4) the extent to which selected IC-element OIGs have met notification and reporting requirements for investigative activities. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in June 2020. Information that the IC elements deemed sensitive has been omitted.

GAO selected the ICIG and the OIGs of five of the largest IC elements for review. GAO analyzed time frames for all closed investigations of complaints received in fiscal years 2017 and 2018; reviewed OIG policies, procedures, training requirements, and semiannual reports to Congress; conducted interviews with 39 OIG investigators; and reviewed a selection of case files for senior leaders and reprisal cases from October 1, 2016, through March 31, 2018.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making 23 recommendations, including that selected IC-element OIGs establish timeliness objectives for investigations, implement or enhance quality assurance programs, establish training plans, and take steps to ensure that notifications to complainants in reprisal cases occur. The selected IC-element OIGs concurred with the recommendations and discussed steps they planned to take to implement them.

For more information, contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604, farrellb@gao.gov or Brian M. Mazanec at (202) 512-5130, mazanecb@gao.gov.

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    Why This Matters Following a 2019 Presidential Declaration of National Emergency, billions of dollars were made available for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' use on border barrier construction. This report provides information on the Corps' contracting for border barriers during fiscal years 2018–2020. Key Takeaways Some Department of Defense funding was only available for a short time before expiring, giving the Corps a tight schedule for awarding contracts. This—and the emergency declaration—led the Corps to depart from its planned acquisition approach. The Corps focused on starting construction quickly and maximizing the miles of border barrier panels it could build. To do so, it: Awarded $4.3 billion in noncompetitive contracts. Competition helps ensure the government gets a good price. Started work before agreeing to terms. The Corps awarded several contracts before terms, such as barrier specifications and cost, were finalized. By focusing on expediency in contracting, the government risks paying higher costs. Contractors completed most DOD-funded border barrier panels by the end of December 2020 as scheduled. A January 2021 Presidential Proclamation paused border barrier construction to the extent permitted by law, and called for a review. In March 2021, DOD officials said they gave input to the Office of Management and Budget, and OMB will present a plan to the President. The Corps has not developed plans to examine its overall acquisition approach and identify lessons learned. Without doing so, the Corps could miss opportunities to strengthen its contracting strategies in future border support efforts. Border Barrier Obligations, Fiscal Years 2018–2020 How GAO Did This Study We reviewed all of the border barrier construction contracts the Corps awarded for projects from fiscal years 2018 through 2020. We also reviewed relevant federal procurement data and interviewed Corps and Department of Homeland Security officials.
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  • Notice of Intent to Publish a Notice of Funding Opportunity Announcement for NGO Programs Benefiting Displaced Iraqis and Syrian Refugees
    In Human Health, Resources and Services
    Bureau of Population, [Read More…]
  • Acting Assistant Secretary Carol Thompson O’Connell Travel to Islamabad, Pakistan
    In Human Health, Resources and Services
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • Religious Freedom Concerns in Russia
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Ned Price, Department [Read More…]
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    In Travel
    Reconsider travel to the [Read More…]
  • GAO Audits Involving DOD: Status of Efforts to Schedule and Hold Timely Entrance Conferences
    In U.S GAO News
    GAO began 37 new audits that involved the Department of Defense (DOD) in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020. Of GAO's 37 requested entrance conferences for those audits, DOD scheduled 33 within 14 days and held 34 within 30 days of GAO's notification. Entrance conferences are initial meetings between agency officials and GAO staff that allow GAO to communicate its audit objectives and enable agencies to assign key personnel to support the audit work. The four entrance conferences that were scheduled more than 14 days after notification were scheduled late due to either difficulties in identifying a primary action officer or aligning the schedules of GAO and DOD officials. The three entrance conferences that were held more than 30 days after notification were scheduled late due to difficulties in aligning the schedules of GAO and DOD officials. GAO's agency protocols govern GAO's relationships with audited agencies. These protocols assist GAO in scheduling entrance conferences with key agency officials within 14 days of their receiving notice of a new audit. The ability of the Congress to conduct effective oversight of federal agencies is enhanced through the timely completion of GAO audits. In past years, DOD experienced difficulty meeting the protocol target for the timely facilitation of entrance conferences. In Senate Report 116-48 accompanying a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, the Senate Armed Services Committee included a provision for GAO to review DOD's scheduling and holding of entrance conferences. In this report, GAO evaluates the extent to which DOD scheduled entrance conferences within 14 days of receiving notice of a new audit, consistent with GAO's agency protocols, and held those conferences within 30 days. This is the final of four quarterly reports that GAO will produce on this topic for fiscal year 2020. In the first three quarterly reports, GAO found that DOD had improved its ability to meet the protocol target. GAO analyzed data on GAO audits involving DOD and initiated in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2020 (July 1, 2020, through September 30, 2020). Specifically, GAO identified the number of notification letters requesting entrance conferences that it sent to DOD during that time period. GAO determined the number of days between when DOD received GAO's notification letter for each new audit and when DOD scheduled the entrance conference and assessed whether DOD scheduled entrance conferences within 14 days of notification, which is the time frame identified in GAO's agency protocols. GAO also determined the date that each requested entrance conference was held by collecting this information from the GAO team conducting each audit and assessed whether DOD held entrance conferences for new audits within 30 days of notification, which was the time frame identified in the mandate for this review. For more information, contact Elizabeth Field at (202) 512-2775 or Fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Man Sentenced to 20 Years in Prison for Attempting to Provide Material Support to ISIS
    In Crime News
    A New York man was sentenced today to 20 years in prison for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, aka ISIS. Zachary Clark, aka Umar Kabir, Umar Shishani and Abu Talha, 42, of Brooklyn, New York, pleaded guilty in August 2020 to one count of attempting to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization, namely, ISIS.
    [Read More…]
  • Designation of Iranian Officials Due to Involvement in Gross Violations of Human Rights
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]