When President Donald Trump fired Intelligence Community (IC) Inspector General (IG) Michael Atkinson in April, Atkinson claimed the president fired him for duly passing on the report of the Ukraine “whistleblower” to Congress — the report that led to Trump’s impeachment — and urged whistleblowers to speak out. According to Pedro Orta, a former CIA agent and whistleblower who allegedly faced multiple rounds of retaliation for attempting to expose abuse of power at a CIA base in 2015, Trump was right to fire Atkinson and the former IC IG’s posturing on whistleblowers conflicts with his record of suppressing claims of retaliation.
Orta called the source that led to Trump’s impeachment the “so-called Ukraine whistleblower” because he was not a whistleblower as defined by the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act (ICWPA) and because his report did not concern “intelligence activities,” so it did not fall under Atkinson’s authority.
“What IG Atkinson basically did was to weaponize the ICWPA law and the authorities of the IC IG to willfully target President Trump with baseless charges to seek his removal,” Orta told PJ Media. “That alone was more than enough to fire IG Atkinson.”
Orta also argued that the so-called whistleblower’s coordination with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) also raises concerns. “First, the process was literally illegally ‘weaponized’ to go after the president. Schiff gave protection, status, and time to take in allegations that suited his political agenda using the ICWPA for politics and the IC IG as a political puppet to impeach President Trump,” the former CIA agent explained. “The so-called Ukraine whistleblower received immediate attention and protection while real IC whistleblowers are shunned and ignored by Congress allowing the IC to run over the real IC whistleblowers as roadkill.”
Worse, Orta explained that “typically, the IC will threaten to revoke the clearance and take serious administrative actions against any IC employee who has direct contact with Congress. When my attorney sought to send [documents] to Congress in June/July 2017 a rep from the CIA [Office of Congressional Affairs] reminded me of administrative penalties and sanctions I would suffer if I had direct communication with Congress.” CIA policies prohibit direct employee contact with Congress.
Yet Atkinson’s offenses go far beyond his pro-impeachment shenanigans done in the name of protecting whistleblowers. In fact, a report on retaliation against whistleblowers was torpedoed — and Orta appears to have been the scapegoat. When Atkinson took over at the IC IG, he did nothing to help Orta or other whistleblowers who reportedly faced retaliation.
The first round of retaliation against this whistleblower
Orta, a Cuban-American in his early fifties, was part of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, the division responsible for carrying out covert actions abroad. He served in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, South American jungles, and cities like Baghdad, according to the Daily Beast. While an incident in 2009 ended with him being sent home from a long-term South American assignment, the incident at the center of his years-long whistleblower battle began in December 2014.
That month, the CIA dispatched Orta to serve as deputy chief of a base at a U.S. military site Orta has not named but which the Daily Beast tentatively identified as Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. According to his Administrative Procedures Act (APA) lawsuit shared with PJ Media, the chief of the base ran it “like a college dormitory.”
Orta alleges that his boss placed “her personal needs of cooking, baking, socializing, entertainment, exercise and shopping above the needs of the mission, often going days and sometimes more than a week without meeting with key personnel.”
According to the lawsuit, Orta’s boss sent personnel on frivolous errands — “food, shopping or to the gym” that placed them in the line of rocket fire. “In one instance, the COB and her personnel traveled through the same area hit by a rocket about 10 minutes after transitioning the area.”
The Daily Beast’s Kevin Poulsen appeared skeptical of Orta’s complaint, saying “his version of events contains obvious echoes of longstanding gender stereotypes.” Yet Poulsen rightly noted that under a policy meant to prohibit whistleblower retaliation, Presidential Policy Directive-19 (PPD-19), “the relevant question” is not whether Orta’s concerns were well-founded but “whether he faced retaliation for reporting them.”
He appears to have faced retaliation in droves. First, the base chief wrote a critical performance review and ended Orta’s tour prematurely. The “short-of-tour” order sent the CIA officer home to Virginia with a reduction in take-home pay.
Orta told PJ Media he faced retaliation in multiple ways, including “getting cut ‘short-of-tour,’ not being sent back to a war zone, getting passed over for jobs, getting denied promotions, having my career stalled, getting chased out of the CIA, and being forced to do a Joint Duty Assignment at the Office of Inspector General for the Intelligence Community to seek refuge.”
“Loss of income was estimated at about $175,000, not including lost income from lost promotion or losses in attorney’s fees at about $35,000,” he added. The negative performance review and the “short-of-tour” would have been black marks on the whistleblower’s record, making it harder for him to find work in the CIA, especially at the level he had previously reached.
Orta first filed his report in 2015 and, following months of inaction, he filed a lawsuit in December 2016. During that time, roughly 630 days had elapsed since Orta filed his reprisal complaint — two-and-a-half times the 240-day limit under PPD-19. He did not even have an IG ruling to appeal. Had Orta’s complaint been handled in a timely manner, he would not have faced the second round of reprisals.
The second round of reprisals
Meanwhile, Orta had gone to work for the IC IG by that time, and he was on the team of six inspectors who began looking into whistleblower retaliation cases in early October 2016.
Jeanette McMillian, the IG’s general counsel, suggested the investigation should focus on the five largest intelligence agencies and the Office of Director of National Intelligence (DNI). She suggested that PPD-19 might go away when the next president was sworn in, and she urged inspectors to conduct a quick evaluation to be done by January 20, 2017. McMillian also noted that a positive finding would provide a nice send-off for departing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who faced backlash due to the Edward Snowden revelations.
As the Daily Beast reported, the retaliation investigation found that inspectors general at the six agencies had received 190 allegations of reprisal from 2010 to 2016. Less than half, 61 complaints, had been investigated. In only one case did the agencies find in favor of the whistleblower — and that case took 742 days to complete.
In March, the inspection moved into the final stage and the team was preparing the official report, but the report was scuttled.
In April, rumors of Orta’s lawsuit reached the office of acting IC IG Wayne Stone. The former CIA agent admitted he was the pseudonymous plaintiff “James Pars.” Stone removed Orta from the investigation and sent him back to the CIA.
Former colleagues said Orta was a diligent and thorough worker, but they explained that his removal from the investigation made sense. “We have a standard in the IG to not only avoid a conflict of interest, but to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Rob Johnson, the former deputy IC IG, told the Daily Beast. Orta would not have been allowed to work on the investigation if leadership had known he had a whistleblower retaliation complaint at the CIA.
Yet the very day after removing Orta from the investigation, Stone aborted the entire project. Data, files, memos, charts, and graphs were locked down. “The official explanation was that the inspection had been tainted by Pars’ involvement,” the Daily Beast reported. But some former IC IG officials said Stone used the Orta situation as a pretext to abort an inconvenient investigation.
Orta described a “second set of reprisals,” including his getting “kicked out of the IC IG.”
“They claimed I had an independence issue because I had worked on an evaluation examining IC whistleblower reprisal protections pertaining to PPD-19. However, the real independence issues involved the interim IC IG leaders,” he told PJ Media. “They launched a counter-investigation against me.”
Round three of retaliation
In November 2017, Orta explained his mistreatment using the analogy of getting beat up with a chair: “as if someone would take a chair, beat me up with the chair, after I am on the floor, get kicked many times, and when I finally get up and try to do something about it, I get labeled as if I am a problem for taking to correct the behaviors against me which were illegal, unacceptable, unethical, and harassment which on paper there is zero-tolerance for harassment in the Agency.” In that very interview, CIA security officers said, “You are not a threat. What can we do to help you?”
Supposedly using this interview, the CIA Office of Security “had the audacity to falsely accuse me of threatening to hit a security officer with a chair,” Orta told PJ Media. “And as such, they chased me out of the CIA as a threat to the workforce.”
On June 28, 2018, the CIA informed Orta that his clearance was revoked and he would be fired on September 26. He appealed to Atkinson, who had become IC IG in May 2018, asking to be put on leave without pay for one year and then being allowed to retire and receive his pension after that. His request was denied.
“When I was informed that I had been terminated, I reached out to IG Atkinson calling him on his own telephone number and leaving him a voicemail,” Orta told PJ Media. “The response was that I need to file an ICWPA using the ICWPA form attached.”
He had filed a report in May 2017, then followed up in June after receiving no response. Atkinson told him to refile in July 2018. After he did so, he received no response until January 23, 2019, when authorities again asked him to refile his report. When he filed whistleblower retaliation reports in February and March 2019, citing the same information as he had reported many times before, the office of inspector general told him that “since I was no longer employed, I had no right to file an ICWPA.”
“With personal life issues, my life was wrecked, I had to focus on health and family. They put me through hell on earth as a result of the severe damages I have suffered,” Orta told PJ Media. “The CIA lawyers were hellbent on covering up the reprisals and [Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO)] violations with the CIA EEO and CIA IG complicit.”
“The CIA Office of Security was sent in as a goon squad to call me a threat to the workforce and fire me,” he added. “I have been treated like roadkill. An animal carcass to be run over as sport. Disgusting, despicable, deplorable, and dehumanizing way of treating a human being.”
Orta is far from alone
Yet Orta is not alone in having his whistleblower retaliation case ignored by IC IG Atkinson. He also named John Reidy, who reportedly blew the whistle on CIA programs which could have led to a catastrophic intelligence failure.
“The CIA chose to take reprisals against Mr. Reidy and cover up their alleged mistakes which reportedly did lead to dozens of assets being arrested and executed,” Orta said. The mistakes involved “intelligence operations in China, severely impacting the ability to collect intelligence on the coronavirus in China.”
Orta also accused Atkinson of failing to help Daniel Meyer, the former executive director of whistleblowing for the IC IG, who himself claimed to be a victim of reprisals at the hands of interim leaders at the IC IG.
30) There is no doubt that IG Atkinson inherited a mess, but instead IG Atkinson chose to cover up, not take legitimate actions to correct these wrongs, and failed to provide Mr. Reidy, Pars, and Meyer’s legitimate assistance.
— Pedro Israel Orta ⭐⭐⭐+⭐M🇺🇸GA✝️🇺🇸🇨🇺🇮🇱 (@PedroIsraelOrta) April 29, 2020
“Consequently, Congress and the IGs should on an immediate basis cease to attack President Trump for his firing of IG Atkinson,” Orta argued. “Instead, Congress and the IGs should uphold the rule of law by providing Mr. Reidy, Pars, and Meyer with the relief the laws mandate.”
He urged the inspectors general to “cease from conducting sham investigations that endorse the reprisals, cover up the reprisals, and woefully fail to abide by the standards, policies, and procedures mandated by the laws.”
Perhaps most importantly, Orta called on Congress and the inspectors general “to cease the political theater, grandstanding, and showmanship demonstrated by how quickly they rose up to defend the so-called whistleblower and IG Atkinson upon his firing, but to this date have done nothing for Mr. Reidy, Pars, or Meyer.”
If activists truly wish to stand up for whistleblowers, they should stop covering for Atkinson and the “whistleblower” at the center of the impeachment effort and instead champion true whistleblowers like Orta. The 190 retaliation allegations illustrate just how desperately the intelligence community needs reform.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.