A Marine Corps whistleblower says military officials are trying to force him from his job for exposing failures to deliver lifesaving equipment to troops in Iraq.
Franz Gayl, a senior civilian employee, alleges a series of punitive actions that underscore the challenges President Barack Obama faces in fulfilling a campaign pledge to treat federal whistleblowers as patriots instead of pariahs.
Public interest groups cheered Obama's promise. But Gayl's case points to the difficulty of transforming a culture, particularly within the military, where whistleblowers often are viewed with contempt.
"That is going to be hard to change," said Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org. "But the reality is, whistleblowers will have an improved situation over what they've had for the last eight years."
Gayl, 52, is the target of a Naval Criminal Investigative Service inquiry for allegedly mishandling secret information, according to Tom Devine, his lawyer. Gayl had accused the Marine Corps of "gross mismanagement" for failing to answer the call in 2005 for heavy-duty trucks that could withstand roadside bombs in Iraq.
Devine calls the military probe an "illegal bluff" aimed at punishing Gayl for ignoring his supervisors warnings and giving then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and other lawmakers copies of an unclassified study he wrote. Gayl's 2008 action in providing Biden with the study prompted the Navy investigation, Devine says.
The January 2008 study, which soon after became public, harshly criticized the Marine Corps for refusing an urgent request from commanders in Iraq for the blast-resistant vehicles.
When Gayl's study was disclosed, the Marine Corps called it a personal opinion at odds with the facts. But a subsequent audit by the Pentagon inspector general affirmed many of Gayl's conclusions.
Months before turning over the study to Biden, Gayl had been telling Biden's office and other lawmakers, including Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., about what he said were serious flaws in the acquisition system that kept needed gear from getting to the troops.
As a leading Senate Democrat, Biden had used Gayl's disclosures to hammer the Bush administration for "unconscionable bureaucratic delays." Biden had called Gayl a hero and urged Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, to make sure Gayl wasn't punished.
But now that he's vice president, Biden hasn't intervened. Biden's press secretary, Elizabeth Alexander, said it is administration policy that the president and vice president "generally do not intervene in or comment on ongoing criminal investigations, personnel actions, and other investigations."
Maj. Carl Redding, a Marine Corps spokesman, denied Gayl is a victim of retaliation.
"We don't do that," Redding said. "Taking time to retaliate against anyone is against the core beliefs of the Marine Corps."
Besides the criminal investigation, Devine says Gayl, a retired Marine officer, has been branded a coward in his Pentagon office where he works as a science and technology adviser.
According to Devine, Gayl has received poor performance evaluations that rank him in the bottom 3 percent of employees at his grade. He's been hit with a letter of reprimand, had his job description rewritten and been pressured to resign. Before his whistleblowing, Devine says Gayl had a sterling record.
"What they are doing to him is shameful," said Devine, legal director at the Government Accountability Project in Washington. "His supervisors might as well be drill sergeants at boot camp trying to break a recruit's spirit."
Ed Buice, a spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said the NCIS does not discuss the details of investigations.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has stepped in. This month, the committee asked the Pentagon inspector general to determine if Gayl's supervisors are using the criminal inquiry as retaliation.
Gayl testified under oath before the committee in May, saying that his professional life had become a nightmare since he first came forward.
In a statement to The Associated Press, the committee chairman, Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., said the committee takes reprisal allegations made by witnesses "very seriously."
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency that reviews reprisal complaints filed by civilian government employees, is also examining Gayl's case.
Devine says Gayl learned in late September he was being investigated by the NCIS. If Gayl is found to have mishandled classified material, he could lose his top-secret security clearance and face criminal charges.
According to an Oct. 14 e-mail that Devine and his associates received from the NCIS, investigators don't dispute that Gayl's 2008 armored vehicle study is unclassified.
Instead, they're zeroing in on two documents he referred to in the study. The documents detail needs for battlefield equipment. Both were written by Gayl while he was in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 serving as a science adviser to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
Gayl recommended both documents be unclassified, and Devine, his lawyer, says senior officers in Iraq agreed. But the NCIS e-mail says the two documents should have been stamped secret because each contained "classified paragraphs." Investigators want to know where the documents are, according to the e-mail, and whether they're being stored in an "unclassified medium."
But Devine says the investigators are trying to classify material "after-the-fact" that by law was unclassified at the time. He also notes that Gayl's access to classified information has been unimpeded while the investigation proceeds, undercutting any suggestion he did anything improper.
"Either the Marines have been letting someone who betrayed the nation continue to have access to secret material, or they're punishing him for speaking out," Devine said. "We think it's the latter."
On the Net:
Government Accountability Project: http://www.whistleblower.org/template/index.cfm
Naval Criminal Investigative Service: http://www.ncis.navy.mil/
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee: http://oversight.house.gov/