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New whistleblower reveals legal path to expose NSA spying that Edward Snowden didn’t try

John Crane investigated alleged abuse at the Pentagon—until he became a whistleblower himself.


Lauren Walker


Posted on May 24, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 5:40 pm CDT

A former head of whistleblower protections has become a whistleblower himself, laying bare how official channels designed for government workers to safely expose wrongdoing are ensnaring them instead. Though some are calling the revelations “vindication for Edward Snowden,” the newest whistleblower refuses to condone Snowden’s decision, saying that the former National Security Agency contractor left a key, legal avenue unexplored.

John Crane, who served as a senior Pentagon investigator until his ouster in 2013, comes forward for the first time in a new book out Tuesday titled Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden by Mark Hertsgaard. In it, Crane describes how senior Pentagon officials allegedly broke the law by punishing former NSA official Thomas Drake, despite Drake having used legal means to report illegal domestic surveillance to his superiors and Congress.

Snowden told an Al Jazeera reporter in 2015 that “if there hadn’t been a Thomas Drake, there wouldn’t have been an Edward Snowden.” Indeed, his predecessor’s use of official whistleblower channels to raise concerns about government wrongdoing ultimately proved professionally and financially ruinous. Snowden, who exposed top-secret NSA surveillance programs by leaking a trove of classified documents to reporters in 2013, learned then that he’d likely be better off taking his revelations straight to the press.

“[They said] that they would start sequential investigations into me until I either became a team player or was forced to leave.”

In an interview this past weekend with the Guardian about Crane’s allegations, Snowden discovered that there is much more to Drake’s story, which influenced his life’s trajectory. But in an interview with the Daily Dot on Monday, Crane suggested that Snowden may have also benefited from learning about the system’s various channels for lawful disclosure.

For 25 years, Crane worked for the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General (DOD OIG), which helps federal employees report abuse. In his rendering of events, Crane describes a government office that functions like the Wild West. He says Pentagon officials illegally provided Drake’s name to criminal investigators and illegally destroyed documents pertinent to his defense.

“The Inspector General is like the Pentagon’s internal sheriff,” Hertsgaard told the Daily Dot in an interview. “What you have in [Crane’s] story is that the sheriffs are breaking the law. … [T]hat in and of itself is an outrage.”

Crane alleges that his refusal to collude with Lynne Halbrooks, the former inspector general who is now a private attorney, and Henry Shelley, general counsel for the inspector general, led to his forced resignation in 2013. Not only has leadership gotten gradually more rigorous about prosecuting whistleblowers in the past seven years, according to Crane, but Halbrooks had special motivation for her persistence. Crane alleges that Halbrooks was hankering for a Senate nomination for the permanent inspector general position and whistleblowers contacting Congress hurt her chances, as it would call her qualifications into question.

Crane has filed his charges with the Office of Special Counsel, sparking an investigation by the Justice Department into whistleblower retaliation at the Pentagon. Bridget Serchak, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon inspector general, did not respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment in time for publication. She did tell the Guardian, however, that “it is important to point out that there has been no determination on the allegations, and it is unfair to characterize the allegations otherwise at this point. DOD OIG will cooperate fully with the DOJ OIG’s investigation of this matter and looks forward to the results of that investigation.”

Halbrooks declined to answer Hertsgaard’s questions for his book, but told Government Executive in an email that “during my time at DOD OIG I strongly supported the rights of whistleblowers throughout the Department of Defense. I welcome the opportunity to cooperate with any government investigation into these false allegations.” Shelley also refused the journalist’s questions, but told the Guardian that he’s “certain my name will be cleared” by the new investigation.

“I was told that should I not shut down oversight from the Hill, should I not identify whistleblowers making allegations against senior management, that I would be removed,” Crane told the Daily Dot. “[They said] that they would start sequential investigations into me until I either became a team player or was forced to leave.

“The second investigation [Shelley and Halbrooks] were interviewed, and they gave a self-corroborated false narrative regarding my actions,” Crane continued. “Ms. Halbrooks was actually the deciding official deciding on the validity of her own false statement. And then she was the actual removing official as well.”

Though Crane ultimately blames the failed whistleblower system for “the largest disclosure of classified information in this nation’s history,” he does not let Snowden off the hook.

“He should have given the system the chance to operate,” said Crane. “Unfortunately … there isn’t enough information out there educating employees, saying these are the various channels that you can use. … Snowden’s problem was that there was a way to make the system work, but it wasn’t explicitly covered in statute.

“Had he contacted the DOD hotline,” Crane continued, “then his allegation would have gone to the Director of Transparency and Whistleblowing. … [T]hat would have gone to the special assistant to the Secretary of Defense, responsible for making sure that there is not domestic surveillance against U.S. citizens.”

When pressed on whether Snowden would have actually been successful using this method, Crane relented. “I don’t know,” he said.

While Snowden—who said he did attempt to expose NSA wrongdoing with others inside the agency—did not address the specific avenue for whistleblowing Crane suggested, he recently rejected the notion that he should have pursued other official channels.

“The sad reality of today’s policies is that going to the inspector general with evidence of truly serious wrongdoing is often a mistake,” Snowden told the Guardian. “Going to the press involves serious risks, but at least you’ve got a chance.”

“Ms. Halbrooks was actually the deciding official deciding on the validity of her own false statement.”

Besides the fact that Crane can now spend more time with his three children, there seems to be a very different silver lining in his perseverance. After many hours of testifying before lawmakers, Crane has inspired language in the pending National Defense Authorization Act that would clarify the protections whistleblowers enjoy against retaliation and require the Government Accountability Office to review the DOD IG’s conduct.

The bill calls for, “an assessment of the adequacy of procedures to handle and address complaints submitted by employees … to ensure that such employees themselves are able to disclose a suspected violation of law, rule, or regulation without fear of reprisal” and “an assessment of the extent to which there have been violations of standards,” such as “retaliatory investigations against whistleblowers.”

Crane adds: “[The bill] has the GAO look at … why one quarter of the inspector general workforce fears retaliation and why one third of the IG reprisal investigators fear reprisal [themselves].”

As the third anniversary of the release of Snowden’s first revelations approaches, Bravehearts gives a better sense of why Snowden did what he did, and in the manner in which he did it. Crane hopes that his coming forward will ultimately return the office to the “gold standard” it once enjoyed—and prevent future Snowdens.

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*First Published: May 24, 2016, 11:41 am CDT