The Pentagon’s top watchdog has cleared senior Army officials of retaliating against a Green Beret officer who turned whistleblower over dysfunction he saw in U.S. hostage recovery efforts, but the case remains under scrutiny by Congress.
The Defense Department Inspector General closed its reprisal investigation against the Army without finding that the service took any illegal unfavorable actions against Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, a decorated war hero who testified before Congress that the U.S. government had “failed” hostages held overseas. Amerine previously coordinated hostage recovery for the Pentagon, but was removed from the job in January after he raised concerns about the efforts with Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R.-Calif.).
The Army investigation was launched after the FBI complained that Amerine may have disclosed classified information to Hunter, Amerine’s lawyer and a spokesman for Hunter’s office said. FBI officials have declined to comment on the case.
The inspector general found that Lt. Gen. Mary A. Legere, Maj. Gen. Ryan F. Gonsalves and Col. William O. Thewes did not violate whistleblower protection policies against Amerine in removing him from his job and referring the concerns about him to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID), according to a two-page Aug. 28 memo from the watchdog’s office to Army Secretary John McHugh. It was obtained by The Washington Post and verified to be accurate by Army officials.
Amerine alleged in an inspector general complaint that the three officers acted illegally by taking several actions against him after the FBI raised concerns that he had disclosed classified information to Hunter about U.S. hostage recovery efforts. Army CID placed him under investigation, and he had his security clearance suspended and his planned military retirement put on hold, he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in June.
The inspector general found that Legere, one of the military’s top intelligence officials, and the other officers that Amerine named acted justifiably considering the circumstances. The cancellation of Amerine’s retirement was carried out following Army procedures because he was referred as the subject of an Army CID investigation, according to the new memo obtained by The Post.
Cynthia Smith, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said the service believes the inspector general’s memo to McHugh “speaks for itself.”
“We appreciate DOD’s thorough investigation into this issue,” she said, asked about the document.
The case has generated significant interest in the media and on Capitol Hill, in part because of Amerine’s past service. He led a Special Forces team in the early days of the Afghanistan War in 2001, protecting future Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He was wounded by an errant American bomb on Dec. 5, 2001, that killed three other U.S. soldiers, and later received the Bronze Star with “V” and the Purple Heart. The Army also labeled him a “Real Hero” in the 2006 version of its popular video game, “America’s Army.”
The case also has drawn concerns because of Amerine’s contention that the United States could have secured a better deal that included other American hostages in its recovery of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who was held captive for five years by militants after going missing from his military base in Afghanistan in 2009. Bergdahl was recovered in a controversial swap for five Taliban officials in May 2014 and subsequently charged this March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted, he faces life in prison.
A lawyer for Amerine, Debra Katz, questioned Thursday how the inspector general could fail to reach a determination on the motivation of senior Army officials who referred the FBI’s concerns to Army criminal investigators. Her legal team plans to prepare a new complaint for the inspector general next week after they view more documents related to the case, she said.
The criminal investigation of Amerine is still ongoing, nearly nine months after it was initiated, Katz said. Army investigators initially probed whether Amerine disclosed classified information to Hunter, but since have shifted to examine whether he disclosed classified information in his reprisal complaint to the inspector general and to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R.-Iowa), whose Senate Judiciary Committee works frequently with whistleblowers and has taken an interest in Amerine’s case.
“In effect, they are keeping him in a limbo situation,” Katz said of the Army. “They’re putting him in a position where he can’t retire from the military and he is perpetually facing criminal investigation.”
Members of Congress are still awaiting the release of the inspector general’s full report, which Grassley said Thursday should be shared immediately.
“The Defense Department inspector general should provide to Congress the full, unredacted classified version of the report,” Grassley said in a statement released to The Post. “There are simply too many unanswered questions, and the full report can provide important context in Lieutenant Colonel Amerine’s case.”
Sources with the Judiciary Committee said whistleblower advocates have raised concerns with them about there being a potential loophole in the existing whistleblower law that allows criminal investigations to be opened as a way of retaliating and as a “fishing expedition” for other wrongdoing. Amerine’s case may provide insight into how the issue should be addressed, the sources said, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Grassley’s office also faced classification issues while investigating the case, the senator wrote in a June 18 letter to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Defense Department Inspector General Jon T. Rymer. After Amerine wrote a letter outlining his concerns in April, Grassley forwarded it April 27 with a request for more information to the inspector general’s office, the letter said. The inspector general’s staff responded two days later by saying that the letter Amerine sent Grassley included classified information, and asking that it not be distributed anymore.
The inspector general informed Grassley on April 30 that it had received a final determination that Amerine’s original inspector general complaint filed four months earlier also included classified information. The inspector general’s office then reversed course on that May 21, saying it had received notification from other officials at the Pentagon that nothing in Amerine’s initial complaint to the inspector general was classified, after all, Grassley’s June letter said.
Bridget Serchak, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said she could not say whether the office launched an investigation on Amerine’s behalf or comment on the correspondence between her office and Grassley. Christopher Grey, a spokesman for Army CID, said that as a matter of policy, the organization does not confirm who it is investigating. The FBI has declined to comment on the case repeatedly over the last few months.
A spokesman for Hunter’s office, Joe Kasper, said that the congressman continues to work with Amerine and wants to see if the forthcoming inspector general report on the case clears explicitly clears Amerine of disclosing classified information in his hostage recovery conversations with Hunter. If it does, Kasper said, it will show that the FBI’s initial complaint raised to the Army was “bogus.”
“Though knowing the full extent of the issue, and involvement at all levels, we’ll have to wait to see what the IG report actually says,” Kasper said. “At that point, we’ll be able to determine whether the findings have integrity and whether it might actually be time to begin calling for new leadership in the IG office.”