The Department of Defense Inspector General (DOD IG) should coordinate with the military services to do a better job of protecting whistleblower confidentiality and addressing delays in handling cases, according to a new report.

The Government Accountability Office report found the IG offices have made progress since past reviews, but needs to do more to protect confidentiality. The review found that employees without “the need to know” have had access to sensitive whistleblower information.

While the timeliness of handling cases has improved in some areas, delays persist in others, according to the report.  For example, the average number of days to complete military and contractor reprisal investigations increased between 2017 and 2018 from 394 days to 541 days.

The DOD IG completed closed 73 investigations in 2018, including 13 senior official misconduct cases and 60 military, contractor, and civilian reprisal cases. However, about 85 percent of all investigations “did not meet the timeliness goals.”

The DOD cited several reasons for the delays, including a backlog of cases and a “lengthy report review process.” The number of reprisal cases nearly doubled over the past five years, up from 1,013 to 2,002, the report notes. In addition, sexual assault victim reprisal cases have been assigned to the whistleblower reprisal investigations unit. The DOD also cites “the number of high-priority senior official cases concurrently open, and the increasing scope and complexity of investigations.”

Efforts to protect whistleblower confidentiality have improved, but “some gaps exist.” For example, DODIG guidance for protecting whistleblowers who report internal DODIG misconduct does not specify key steps investigators should take to protect confidentiality, such as not identifying complainants during interviews with case subjects.

In addition, restricted DOD Hotline records were accessible to unauthorized employees in the agency’s document repository. The DOD told GAO that stated that the case records were only briefly visible to employees responsible for handling Hotline complaints and that the privacy problem was addressed.

In its response, the DOD IG noted that there is no evidence that employees without the need to know actually accessed “any sensitive whistleblower information.”

The reports recommend that the DOD IG take steps to address concerns.

  • Coordinate with the IGs of the military services to “improve performance against unmet timeliness goals.”
  • Issue formal guidance documenting procedures for protecting the confidentiality of whistleblowers.
  • Consider interim actions to secure sensitive information while a whistleblower case management system is being developed.
  • Enhance its process for periodically reviewing whistleblower case management systems.

In addition, the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corp inspector general offices should establish procedures to fully implement DOD policy on whistleblower confidentiality. The DOD Inspector General and the IGs for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corp should restrict access in the future whistleblower information to only information necessary to accomplish assigned tasks.