CIA watchdog withdraws nomination after allegations of retaliation against colleagues

Christopher Sharpley, the acting Inspector General of the Central Intelligence Agency, is withdrawing his nomination ...

Posted: Jul. 20, 2018 9:12 PM
Updated: Jul. 20, 2018 9:12 PM

Christopher Sharpley, the acting Inspector General of the Central Intelligence Agency, is withdrawing his nomination after former colleagues alleged he retaliated against them for blowing the whistle on CIA IG officials' alleged mishandling of evidence.

According to two sources familiar with the matter, and confirmed by the CIA, Sharpley sent an email to staff on Wednesday telling them he was pulling back his nomination to be CIA Inspector General and would be retiring from CIA within 30 days to seek other opportunities. His specific reason for withdrawing now was not immediately clear.

His resignation comes as President Donald Trump continues to face difficulties installing his candidates in key roles -- and as the intelligence community comes under increased pressure from the White House surrounding the various investigations into Russian meddling during the 2016 US presidential elections.

Sharpley, the former deputy Inspector General under President Barack Obama, has served in watchdog offices across government for decades after he left the Air Force. He has served in the acting role since 2015.

Sharpley has been the subject of complaints made by multiple former employees within the Inspector General's Office. Andrew Bakaj and Jonathan Kaplan, two of the retired officials whose complaints are now public, alleged that Sharpley punished them for reporting wrongdoing within the office. There are additional complaints from employees who have not revealed their names.

The officials' alleged Shapley interrupted witness interviews to try and identify whistleblowers in an ongoing investigation into top officials' mishandling of evidence in a contracting bribery case, forcing prosecutors at the Department of Justice to toss out evidence and settle.

Sharpley said during his confirmation hearing at the Senate Intelligence Committee, in response to questions from Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, about Kaplan and Bakaj's complaints, that he was not aware of the ongoing investigations into his conduct. "I'm not aware of any ongoing investigations or the details of any complaints and no actions or conclusions of wrongdoing have been made about my career or anything that I've done," said Sharpley.

However, he was interviewed for the investigations and his signature is on multiple filings related to the cases. His failure to acknowledge those investigations led multiple senators to stonewall his confirmation.

The agency also "punted" on doing in-depth investigations into the deaths of American officials in Benghazi, Libya, Kaplan alleged, and pushed for more law enforcement capabilities like the ability to carry guns.

Kaplan and Bakaj allege they suffered negative consequences in their careers after filing complaints against Sharpley. Bakaj, the author of the CIA's rules on how to properly handle whistleblowers without retaliation, was put on administrative leave without pay for 18 months before he chose to leave. Kaplan, who alleges he was restricted from doing his job, left the agency and his security clearance was revoked.

Both officials are involved in ongoing investigations into the CIA Inspector General's actions, which outside agencies, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, are handling. According to Bakaj's lawyers, DHS has nearly completed its investigation. The CIA confirmed to CNN that Sharpley would be leaving and praised his decades of service in the agency. They did not make Sharpley available for comment. In the past, the agency has said that Sharpley has not had any black marks in his record of wrongdoing or misconduct and built multiple IG offices from the ground up.

"CIA is grateful to Acting Inspector General Chris Sharpley for his service to the Agency, including his work to professionalize the Office of Inspector General," wrote a CIA spokesperson.

"After three decades of public service, he has decided to continue his career outside the Agency, and we wish him the best in this new chapter. CIA's commitment to rigorous, independent oversight is unwavering, and the Office of Inspector General will carry on that important mission through the transition."

Mark Zaid and John Tye, attorneys representing the whistleblowers through a new nonprofit Whistleblower Aid, said Sharpley's failure to get confirmed showed the whistleblower system working properly.

"These two men have shown incredible dedication and sacrifice," said Zaid, a national security lawyer in Washington who regularly works on security clearance issues.

"The IG system plays a crucial role in oversight ... in recommending solutions. It's especially important for the 17 US intelligence agencies because so much of what they do is secret," said Tye, a former whistleblower himself. "Even members of Congress have a very limited view into what the intelligence agencies are doing."

The CIA IG has in the past investigated key issues including gender disparity at the agency, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Bush-era enhanced interrogation program, and the Iran-Contra scandal -- and serves an important independent oversight role. Whistleblowers are meant to be able to approach the IG or the congressional committees to file complaints of fraud, waste, abuse, or illegality.

It's unclear when or if the Trump administration will nominate a new candidate to be the top watchdog at CIA. However, the administration recently worked to confirm a new inspector general for the intelligence community overall, the Intelligence Community Inspector General. Michael Atkinson was confirmed in May, after Congress held him up due to the ICIG's own controversy over delayed cases, turf battles, and whistleblower reprisal.

"Christopher Sharpley is not the permanent Inspector General because of brave whistleblowers willing to publicize his office's problems. In a community clouded by darkness, these whistleblowers provided a light and made a difference," said Irvin McCullough, a national security analyst for the Government Accountability Project, which also represents government whistleblowers.

"We're looking forward to the President confirming an independent replacement with integrity. It's time for someone to right the ship," he said.

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