war on the rocks

How the System Went After a War Hero: Jason Amerine Goes to Washington

December 10, 2015

Lt. Col. Jason Amerine earned a Bronze Star with a V device and Purple Heart for his heroic actions during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan in a battle that was immortalized in a best-selling book, The Only Thing Worth Dying For. He’s a Green Beret who was a guest of President George W. Bush at the State of the Union Address in 2002. He taught at West Point and even inspired the Army to create an action figure in his likeness.

The word “hero” gets thrown around a lot and is probably overused, but there’s not much debate when it comes to applying it to Amerine.

None of that, however, seemed to matter in September when Amerine was told to report to Army Criminal Investigation Command. There were no official charges against him but that did not stop the Army from trying to humiliate him by taking his mug shot, fingerprints, and DNA in order to list him in a criminal database.

His alleged crime? He had spoken to a Member of Congress about the U.S. government’s broken and dysfunctional hostage recovery process.

It was a textbook example of retaliation against someone who had spoken the truth and, in doing so, had embarrassed government officials.

We met Amerine in February when he was already under investigation for having talked to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA). He wanted to expose and correct the ultimately fatal bureaucratic infighting over hostage recovery between the FBI, Army, Department of Defense, State Department, and CIA. He was still active duty, but his security clearance had been suspended, he had been stripped of his duties, and he was forced to spend his days doing nothing.

It was clear the systems set up to both protect whistleblowers and enhance congressional oversight were failing him. What we did not know at the time was that this was just the beginning of a long ordeal over several months that would get much worse before it got better.

Working behind the scenes

Our organization, the Project On Government Oversight, was founded by Pentagon whistleblowers concerned about wasteful spending and weapons that did not work. Over the years, our mission has evolved, but we remain devoted to our roots, protecting brave truth-tellers inside the federal government. When Amerine came to us for help, we were vaguely aware of his storied career. We knew there was a book about his experiences as a warrior, but we decided we had better not read it — we needed to help him win his battles here in Washington, and that would have been a lot harder if we were treating him as the war hero he is.

We worked with his original and dogged allies, Rep. Hunter and his chief of staff, Joe Kasper, to try to end the retaliatory investigation and allow Amerine to retire with his reputation intact.

At first we tried to bring the Army bureaucracy to its senses behind the scenes, asking them to reconsider their decision to investigate Amerine for making protected disclosures to Congress. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), the Ranking Member of the House Armed Services’ Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, co-signed a letter with Hunter to the Army challenging this improper interference with a member of the military’s right to speak to Congress and urging the Army to cease its retaliatory investigation. Their pleas were largely ignored.

The House Armed Services Committee had also interviewed Amerine about the hostage recovery mess, but they did nothing to protect their sources, and their right to access information.

We turned next to the Senate.

Help from Sen. Grassley

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been a dogged protector of whistleblowers for his whole congressional career. When Amerine explained his case to Grassley’s staff, they immediately understood what was going on and offered to help, asking Amerine to write a letter to Grassley formally asking for assistance. Little did we know that this second protected communication would become the subject of a separate retaliatory investigation by the Army.

Amerine’s retirement orders were “deleted” — our first sign that this had turned into a criminal investigation. Rep. Hunter was able to determine how this had started: When the FBI had learned that Amerine was speaking to Congress, they decided he “needed to get back into his lane.” They started a whisper campaign suggesting that Amerine was improperly disclosing classified information, triggering an Army Criminal Investigation Command investigation. His pay was temporarily suspended.

In June, Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) invited Amerine to testify at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing about weaknesses in whistleblower protections — in Amerine’s case, the utter failure of military whistleblower laws. It almost didn’t happen. In the days before Amerine was scheduled to testify, the Army yet again tried to interfere and nearly convinced some committee staff that he should not be allowed to testify, disingenuously claiming that his testimony would compromise classified information.

Incredibly, the Afghanistan war hero was now being targeted by bureaucracies back in DC. “Worst for me is that the cadets I taught at West Point, now officers rising in the ranks, are reaching out to me to see if I’m OK,” he told the Senate. “I fear for their safety when they go to war, and now they fear for my safety in Washington.”

DoD Inspector General = FAIL

Amerine had earlier filed a complaint with the Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG) alleging retaliation for his communications with Congress. We filed an expedited Freedom of Information Act request to the DoD IG for their investigative report. Even though they are supposed to act as a safeguard for whistleblowers, we were pessimistic that they would actually help in Amerine’s case. A POGO investigation had previously found that the DoD IG refused to release investigative reports that would embarrass high-level officials, and whistleblowers within the DoD IG’s own office allege that the office watered down and changed investigative findings to avoid political controversy. We also worried about their basic competence and capacity to do the work. An internal review of the DoD IG’s investigation of military reprisal cases found gross mishandling of the cases, with the IG’s own investigators disputing the dismissal of more than half of the cases they reviewed.

This time the DoD IG’s failure was spectacular, and the story shifted from the bizarre into the absurd. Despite evidence that the Army’s investigation into Amerine was retaliatory, and therefore illegal, the flaccid DoD OIG yet again failed to do their job in protecting a whistleblower.

To make matters even worse, the DoD IG provided a summary of their investigation into the Amerine case — concluding that he had not been retaliated against — to the Army, which promptly leaked it to The Washington Post. Yet, the IG refused to provide the report to any congressional office that requested it, even to staff who had the specific clearances and privacy waivers required to receive it.

Every system was broken.

When September came and Amerine found himself fingerprinted, we could not help but ask ourselves: Will this stop at a court-martial? Could he end up in jail?

The hero was now being treated as a criminal. The white-hot hatred with which institutions attack whistleblowers spares no one — and now it turned toward Amerine, the war hero.

Victory

Amerine had to assemble a “last guerrilla army” of congressional supporters, POGO, lawyers at Katz, Marshall and Banks, and a few courageous military officers acting behind the scenes, to turn it all around. We all pulled so many levers we are still not sure what worked. But only a month after Amerine was “processed” as a criminal suspect, the Army abruptly ended their investigation and awarded him the prestigious Legion of Merit medal for his military service in a private ceremony.

While that battle is over, the war is not. What if a less-celebrated military service member had spoken to Congress about wrongdoing? Would we have seen the same resolution?

Our military whistleblower protections have fundamentally failed. We have a DoD IG that is at best a lapdog for the military services, and at worst a henchman for vindictive bureaucracies. The whisper campaign from the FBI almost succeeded in destroying a hero’s life. We need to completely clear Amerine’s name, and we must fix the laws that apply to military whistleblowers so that they actually work.

Oh, and yes, now we need to read The Only Thing Worth Dying For.

 

Danielle Brian is the executive director of the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). Mandy Smithberger is director of POGO’s Center for Defense Information and Straus Military Reform Project.