Grassley Releases Report on Inspector General's Bungling of Zero Dark Thirty Investigation
***A copy of the report can be found here.
Prepared Floor Statement of Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
United States Senate
Zero Dark Thirty Report
Thursday, December 4, 2014
Mr. President, I come to the floor today to talk about Zero Dark Thirty – not the movie but a report on the movie. The report was supposed to tell us how the movie’s producers obtained top secret information. But the report never took us there. The Department of Defense Inspector General (IG) stumbled and fell and lost sight of the goal and the need for independence. People were exposed to harm. The Taxpayers’ money got wasted. Alleged misconduct by top officials was shielded by a policy that may have been abused. Bureaucratic bungling caused confusion, turmoil, and dissent. It was a fiasco.
The Zero Dark Thirty report was driven by the “hemorrhage of leaks” of highly classified information by senior administration officials after the Osama bin Laden raid. It was requested by the Chairman of a House oversight Committee, Congressman Peter King. He read a column in the New York Times, which indicated that Hollywood filmmakers “received top-level access to the most classified mission in history.” He was concerned that those disclosures could undermine our ability to successfully conduct covert operations in the future.
So in August 2011, King asked the Inspectors Generals (IG) at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) to answer five simple questions.
My focus is the DOD IG investigation.
I became involved after whistleblowers contacted my office in December 2012, alleging that Acting and Deputy Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks was “sitting on the King report.”
They alleged that she was suppressing the report to (1) protect her boss, Secretary of Defense Panetta and other senior officials, from disciplinary action or prosecution and (2) to further her candidacy to be the next defense IG. Her nomination was vetted while the investigation was in progress.
The convergence of these potential conflicts-of-interest grabbed my attention. They needed scrutiny. The independence of the Inspector General’s Office could have been jeopardized. So my staff just started digging. They interviewed key witnesses and examined documents provided by whistleblowers and official sources.
Here is what my staff found:
On December 16, 2011, the DOD OIG announced that its investigation would begin “immediately” and that it was to be “coordinated” with the CIA IG. It would be conducted by the office of Intelligence and Special Program Assessments headed by Mr. James Ives. The investigation took a year.
A draft report was submitted for classification review on October 24, 2012. The allegations were substantiated. Senior officials, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, his chief of staff Jeremy Bash, and Under Secretary for Intelligence Michael Vickers, allegedly made unauthorized disclosures of highly classified information on the raid. And these alleged disclosures may have placed Special Operations personnel and their families in harm’s way.
One month later, the draft report, containing those allegations, was declared unclassified. A “coordination package” was then developed. It included a publicly-releasable version, talking points for reporters, and transmittal memos to the Defense Secretary and Chairman King. This package was circulated internally for “final review and clearance.” The next and final step was submission to Deputy IG Halbrooks as a request for release. By normal standards, the report was ready for issue. However, there was a major foul-up – a show-stopper. The review process was bungled from start to finish.
All references to unauthorized disclosures of highly classified information by the senior officials had to be stripped from the report before it could be published. This Draconian measure, which gutted the report and made it unfit for publication, was mandated by a “long-standing Department policy.” This guidance was known only to the two leaders of the investigation, Deputies Halbrooks and Ives. It was their responsibility to execute it at the front-end of the review.
I want to make one point crystal clear. I don’t support the policy of censoring reports. It’s a bad policy that needs to be changed. Here’s my beef. If that’s the policy, then it should be followed, but it wasn’t followed until the last possible moment.
To make matters far worse, both Ives and Halbrooks failed to communicate the policy mandate to those who needed the information to ready the report for publication. Halbrooks and Ives kept the investigative team in the dark – like a bunch of mushrooms. So they had the mistaken notion the uncensored report was final and ready to go. This caused turmoil.
Two factors set the stage for the bungled review process.
First, the official assigned to lead the project, Mr. Ives, lacked relevant professional experience and top management failed to actively supervise his day-to-day progress on the report to ensure that he followed established protocols. He needed guidance navigating his way through an unfamiliar process but got none. Plus his appointment was limited to four months on a project that took two years. This was a recipe for disaster.
Second, the problem was compounded by a failure to coordinate with the CIA IG before the investigation got rolling. Effective coordination was essential. King’s request crossed jurisdictional lines between two powerful agencies.
The CIA IG was ultimately responsible for examining the alleged misconduct because it occurred while Panetta and his chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, were CIA employees. That they had moved to the Pentagon after the investigation started was irrelevant. This was a no-brainer, but for inexplicable reasons, the DOD IG tackled the Panetta/Bash allegations. This was an irresponsible and wasteful decision. It took over a year of groping down this blind alley for the reality to sink in. By then it was too late.
The failure of the two agencies to coordinate effectively right up-front had disastrous consequences. Just as the report was reaching critical mass in late 2012, the Panetta case had to be referred back to the CIA IG for investigation. Panetta’s alleged misconduct was the heart and soul of the report. It was suddenly gone, leaving the report hollow and empty.
How could all this senseless blundering happen unless it was part of a plan to slow-roll or torpedo the report?
The blundering was coupled with unexplained delays.
Between mid-December and early January, Deputy Ives finally completed the mandated “substantive review,” which gutted the report. However, it did not regain forward motion until after Secretary Panetta retired on February 27, 2013. Halbrooks’ claims she did not receive or see the draft until March 25, 2013. Aside from a few minor edits, there is no record of significant edits between Mr. Ives’ review and publication in June. The three-month delay in reaching her desk and subsequent delays until June, remain unexplained and unaccounted for.
These facts create the perception that the review process was slowed by Halbrooks and others at her direction to shield DOD officials from scrutiny. She claims her nomination was dead at this point -- and no longer a potential conflict -- but offers no evidence to back it up. Moreover, this timeline fits with other relevant information. According to a whistleblower, she stated repeatedly that the report would not be issued until Panetta stepped down, and that’s exactly what happened.
Finally, the bungled review process may have triggered whistleblowing. Whistleblowers thought the report was about to be issued in late 2012 when media talking points were circulated. When it didn’t happen, they perceived a cover-up, contacted my office, and then leaked it to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).
The un-censored version of the report appeared on the POGO web site on June 4, 2013. Ten days later, the IG’s office reacted by finally issuing the censored version of the report. If POGO had not acted, the report might never have seen the light of day. It might have been pigeon-holed for good.
Immediately after the official report was issued, Halbrooks launched a hunt for the mole. She wanted to know who leaked the report to POGO. Extensive interviews were conducted and 33,269 emails were examined, but the leaker was not found. However, during questioning, Mr. Dan Meyer, the DOD OIG Director of Whistleblowing and Transparency, admitted to giving a copy of the report to Congress. He was one of many OIG employees who mistakenly believed that the un-censored version of the report circulated in late 2012 for “final review and clearance” was, indeed, final. He thought it was ready to go out the door. As the Director of Whistleblowing and Transparency, maybe he just thought he was doing his job and being transparent.
His admission triggered swift and decisive action. He was accused of making false statements, placing his security clearance in jeopardy. This action had the potential of destroying his career. Fortunately, the new IG, Jon Rymer, intervened on Mr. Meyer’s behalf and blocked those efforts. The case against Mr. Myer was flimsy, though his clearance is still hanging-fire.
In the end, Mr. Meyer bore the brunt of blame for the POGO leak. The principal targets of the investigation, Panetta, Vickers and Bash, skated. Mr. Meyer exposed their alleged misconduct and got hammered. Justice got turned upside down.
What happened during the 22 months between Chairman King’s request and June 2013, when the report was finally issued, is a tangled bureaucratic mess. Despite exhaustive questioning, a satisfactory explanation hasn’t been given.
What I have presented today is just a brief summary of the facts and analysis laid out in greater detail in the staff report I released today. In that report, my staff identified potential red flags pertaining to the way the Inspector General’s Office handled the Zero Dark Thirty report. These were boiled down to nine conclusions that fell into four broad categories: 1) Impairment of IG independence and lack of commitment to the spirit and intent of the IG Act; 2) Weak leadership; 3) Mismanagement; and 4) Waste of time and taxpayers’ money.
The staff findings suggest that some corrective action may be justified, including an appropriate measure of accountability. If misconduct and/or mismanagement occurred, then Deputies Lynne Halbrooks and James Ives, both of whom led the Zero Dark Thirty project, would appear to be chiefly responsible for whatever happened.
It is also recommended that the “long-standing Department policy” of censoring sensitive information from reports not be applied to cases involving alleged misconduct by top officials. Agency heads and their senior deputies should be held to a higher standard. They should be subjected to greater public scrutiny. This policy needs review and possible modification.
When all is said and done, Mr. President, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. What good came from this effort?
Its true value is reflected in the end-product: the highly-sanitized report that was finally issued on June 14, 2013 – six months after it was finished. I believe that it is a second-class piece of work that is not worth the paper it is written on.
Even Halbrooks seems to agree that the report’s face-value is close to zero. Here is what she said during an interview with my staff: She said that once Ives removed all the derogatory information on Panetta and Vickers, the report was no longer interesting or important to me, and it just dropped off my radar screen, or words to that effect. She was talking about the report issued on June 14, 2013.
Halbrooks is correct about the value of the report. But she is dead wrong about her responsibilities as IG for the unfinished report. At that point, she appears to have lost sight of her core mission as IG. The report was about alleged misconduct by her boss, the Secretary of Defense. It was requested by the chairman of a House oversight committee. She had a solemn duty to put it back up on her radar screen and keep it there -- front and center -- until it was fixed. Once it was ready and up to standards, she should have presented it proudly and enthusiastically to the Congress and Secretary of Defense and done it promptly and in a restricted format if necessary.
This project was an unmitigated disaster spawned by a series of top-level missteps and blunders. All the wasted energy and blundering produced nothing better than internal confusion, turmoil, dissent, and more alleged misconduct. Two year’s worth of hard work and money was poured down a rat hole.
To make matters far worse, a valued employee was threatened with termination. This person has unique and unparalleled knowledge of whistle-blowing and a rock-solid commitment to fair treatment of whistleblowers. Were it not for IG Rymer, he would be out on the street today. Halbrooks’ search for the mole was misguided.
The Inspector General’s office needs strong leadership that has the courage to tell it like it is and to report wrongdoing promptly to the agency head and Congress with recommendations for corrective action. When the Secretary and Under Secretary stand accused of misconduct, as in this case, the IG should double-down and ensure public accountability. Thus far, in this matter, there has been none because truth was hidden behind a questionable policy that may have been abused.
There is an excellent case in point. Deputy Secretary of Defense and CIA Director John Deutch allegedly mishandled highly classified information and got hammered for doing it. He lost his clearance for six years and came close to prosecution. Unlike the Zero Dark Thirty leaks, that matter was dealt with effectively and aired in public.
The Zero Dark Thirty model was wasteful of the taxpayers’ money. It was harmful to morale, and harmful to the perceived independence of the IG’s office. It should be used as an educational tool to teach OIG employees how NOT to conduct investigations of alleged misconduct by senior officials.
I yield the floor.