News consumers may not be aware that many of the front-page scandals — mishandling of bodies at Arlington Cemetery and Dover Air Force Base, sexual assaults in the military, bribery of naval officers by contractors in Asia — came to light because of whistleblower complaints to the Pentagon’s anonymous hotline (www.dodig.mil/Hotline or 800-424-9098).
Patrick Gookin, installed in March as the first to hold the title of director of the Defense Hotline Program and whistleblower protection ombudsman, has been trying to change that by reaching out to the workforce, hotline officials at other federal agencies and, as of this month, the press.
“We’re the unsung hero of the department in that we don’t tell people who we’re chasing, but we do tell people when we’ve caught them,” he told reporters on Wednesday. The Pentagon’s version of the hotlines used throughout the government, he noted, was called into 24/7 service after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
Use of the hotline — which has telephone, online, facsimile and U.S. mail formats — has shot up 125 percent from 2009 to 2013, reaching a high of 31,000 contacts last year, with 4,862 of them resulting in referrals for investigation in fiscal 2012, Gookin said. Callers are not required to identify themselves. “Veracity trumps motivation,” he said. “You could call for the wrong reason, like a jilted lover, but if it’s true, we’ll take it on.”
A former Marine criminal investigator who also worked for the Defense Logistics Agency inspector general, Gookin said, “I was a customer and received action items from the hotline” before moving over to the Defense inspector general’s office.
His staff of 30, mostly investigators and support staff, does not conduct the probes of waste, fraud, abuse and violations of law, but performs triage to cull out the highest-priority cases for referral to appropriate bodies. Though heady topics of complaints range from retaliation against whistleblowers to human trafficking to intelligence breaches, as much as 60 percent of the traffic turns out to be irrelevant or spam.
Queries on pay and benefits, for example, or employment discrimination are re-rerouted to other offices. Complaints considered actionable for further probing are ranked. Top priority goes to complaints affecting life, health or safety and intelligence matters, which must be moved on the first day of the contact. Second-priority items tend to involve misconduct or reprisals and require action within three days. The remainder tend to be routine, of the “my boss yelled at me” variety, Gookin said.
As of Oct. 1, the hotline office was no longer taking complaints by email because the “unstructured” format involves too much back and forth. Tipsters who call by phone are encouraged to go online, though some accommodations can be made. Phone calls are never recorded, Gookin said, and the only progress updates staff are allowed to give to repeat callers are indications of whether a case is open or closed.
The hotline staff follow up on how the separate agency investigators receiving the referrals resolved the issue, and the hotline’s work is evaluated retrospectively under Quality Assurance Review Procedures.
Asked whether Edward Snowden, the terminated Booz Allen contractor who this spring spilled National Security Agency domestic surveillance documents into the public eye, could have chosen the Defense hotline route, Gookin said he could have, initially. “He had every opportunity to go through us, though we wouldn’t have told him his complaint’s status, so there wouldn’t be instant gratification. But it would have been highest priority. Once he went outside the system,” Gookin said, “as far as I know, he violated the law.”
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