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Report finds large gaps in military whistleblower protection

Advisers of the two F-22 pilots who have publicly aired concerns about the aircraft were gratified Tuesday when an Air Force general said both men were considered protected from reprisal as whistleblowers.

But a May 2011 report that just became public says the military has a spotty history of protecting whistleblowers. Incomplete case files, failure to interview key officials and complaints dismissed too early were three of many shortcomings listed in the internal Pentagon report.

The Office of Inspector General in the Defense Department reviewed 169 cases conducted by the Directorate for Military Reprisal Investigations, the unit that evaluates complaints from whistleblowers who say they have been punished for speaking out.

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The IG agreed with 82 decisions — less than half. It disagreed with 74 and did not review 13 for various reasons, including that some were still under investigation.

The report provoked angry reactions from top members of Congress, who told the Pentagon to, in effect, clean up its act.

How this debate affects Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Josh Wilson – if it does at all – remains to be seen. Gordon has not faced any disciplinary actions to date. Wilson is facing a letter of reprimand and a possible review by an Air Force Flying Evaluation Board, which could declare him unfit to fly.

The two Virginia Air National Guard pilots from Langley Air Force Base took the extraordinary step of speaking to to "60 Minutes" and U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill,

"Sometimes, a higher profile case will get more deserved attention from those who administer the whistleblower protections under the law," said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight, the nonprofit watchdog group that obtained the report.

That said, the law "is in desperate need of some upgrades," ranging from how investigations are conducted to how files are kept, she said.

"I think there is a real seriousness to fixing the problem," Canterbury said, "but we don't know if they're fixed yet."

Some members of Congress are adamant about seeing improvements.

"Heads must roll," states an April 24 letter from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A joint letter from Sens. Carl Levin and John McCain of the Senate Armed Services Committee called the report a "a matter of grave concern" and wanted to know, among other things, if any past cases would be reopened. The letter was sent Tuesday to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

In response to Grassley's blistering letter, a Pentagon official wrote that the Defense Department has since embarked on an aggressive program "to realize our vision of being the model whistleblower protection program, not only in the Department of Defense, but also in the federal government."

Gordon and Wilson said they stopped flying the F-22 for medical reasons in early 2012. Both had suffered instances of hypoxia — insufficient oxygen — caused by problems with the plane's oxygen-generating system. Hypoxia was linked to the November 2010 crash of an F-22 in Alaska that killed the pilot.

The Raptor fleet was grounded for four months in 2011. It returned to flight status in September even though investigators had found no root cause for the oxygen-supply problems in the cockpit. The Air Force installed an activated carbon filter on the F-22's breathing apparatus.

Last week, those filters were removed when it was learned that the filters were leaking and that pilots were inhaling charcoal dust.

Wilson said he has been disciplined as a result of following his physician's recommendation that he not fly with the filter. He is willing to resume flying to comply with the demands of his pending letter of reprimand and avoid further disciplinary action, his attorney said Wednesday.

Gordon has advised the National Guard that he's prepared to help assess the problems with the life support systems in the F-22 by resuming flying under close medical scrutiny and coordination with those evaluating the life support system.

The (Newport News, Va.) Daily Press
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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