The Kansas City Star
The Air Force last week suspended the security clearance of a whistle-blower at its air base near Omaha, Neb., two months after he went public with his concerns about maintenance on U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.
Officials at Offutt Air Force Base told George Sarris, a senior civilian aircraft mechanic, that they took the action because he failed to report a maintenance problem on one of the planes and because they had concerns about his mental state. The loss of security clearance means Sarris is still employed, but not allowed to perform his job.
Sarris and his attorney countered Thursday that Sarris had been trying to convince his supervisors to deal with the maintenance problem at issue — and many others — for years. Sarris’ attorney added that the Air Force relied on “rank gossip” to raise bogus concerns about his mental condition.
“I tried to tell them for years about the improper installation of landing gears and other problems, and now they are accusing me of not reporting those concerns,” Sarris said.
Capt. Joseph Campbell, a spokesman for the 55th Wing at Offutt, said that the squadron commander over Sarris had full authority to take the action she did, and has started an informal process to evaluate Sarris’s “continued reliability.”
Campbell also said Sarris was asked to sign a form acknowledging that his access to classified information had been temporarily suspended and that he had an obligation to protect classified information, and he agreed to do so.
But Campbell declined to explain why Sarris’ security clearance was taken away, or to answer any other questions about the decision.
The Air Force action comes in the midst of a congressional investigation into Sarris’ maintenance concerns by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and a separate federal inquiry into whether Sarris already has been improperly disciplined for speaking out earlier.
In November, The Kansas City Star reported that Sarris and eight other current and former aircraft mechanics at Offutt said they feared that the safety of RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft at the base was being compromised by poor maintenance.
They told The Star that the maintenance issues were serious and could eventually lead to mechanical failures on the RC-135s, delaying critical missions or endangering crews.
Air Force officials at the time insisted that Sarris was wrong and no serious safety problems existed. However, after Sarris’ allegations were published, he said the inspector general of the 55th Wing at Offutt launched a new inquiry.
As a result of his suspension, Sarris said, he is not allowed to work and instead spends his shift in the employee break room near the maintenance hangar.
In its Jan. 30 letter suspending Sarris’ clearance, the Air Force accused him of “maintenance malpractice” for failing to report a mechanical problem that Sarris said he had reported many times before.
The Air Force’s actions are a “textbook” retaliatory response to whistle-blowers and part of a effort to raise false questions about Sarris’ reliability, according to the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower advocacy group representing Sarris.
Project officials said Thursday that they would urge the Department of Defense inspector general to open a new investigation into the suspension of Sarris’ security clearance.
The RC-135s fly global intelligence-gathering missions and, at an average age of 45 years, are among the oldest in the Air Force fleet. The aircraft carry the latest equipment for detecting troop movements, enemy radio transmissions and nuclear emissions.
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An Email From George Sarris
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Thank you for sharing my whistleblower plight of 2008 with the world. Some would say I have prevailed. (Attached is an update.)
George G Sarris
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 27, 2011
CONTACT: Government Accountability Project
Tom Devine, Legal Director
202.457.0034, ext. 124
Shanna Devine, Legislative Campaign Coordinator
202.457.0034, ext. 132
Dylan Blaylock, Communications Director
202.457.0034, ext. 137
Air Force Whistleblower George Sarris Prevails in Settlement
WASHINGTON - May 27 - Today, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is announcing the successful settlement by Air Force aircraft mechanic George Sarris of his Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) lawsuit. GAP adjunct attorneys Thad Guyer and Stephanie Ayers challenged a wide range of retaliation surrounding removal of Sarris' security clearance, ranging from removal of meaningful duties to lowered performance appraisals.
“The Air Force agreed to give Mr. Sarris everything that the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) could order, and more, without a hearing,” commented GAP Legal Director Tom Devine.
A loophole in the WPA deprived Sarris of the right to challenge the security clearance removal. Congress is reconsidering an overhaul of the law, which was on the verge of passing last December when the final vote was blocked by a secret Senate “hold” an hour before adjournment (http://bit.ly/g9BB8j). That overhaul, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), would give employees a chance to file lawsuits challenging retaliatory removal of clearances.
Sarris is a well-known figure within the whistleblower rights movement, who spoke at the 2010 National Whistleblower Assembly. He expressed his feelings at the end of a nearly four-year struggle:
In an attempt to prevent me from disclosing non-airworthy conditions overlooked by previous generations of aircraft mechanics, management presented me with two un-lawful written orders threatening me with disciplinary actions. Essentially, management attempted to blackmail me into allowing the operation of non-airworthy aircraft in exchange for continued employment. I did not fall prey to blackmail and elevated my concerns through the appropriate channels.
Many of the non-airworthy discrepancies reported by me were substantiated by a DoD Civilian Reprisal Investigation, a 55th Wing Inspectors General Investigation, and a 55th Wing Commander Directed Investigation. Some of the discrepancies implicated outdated, inaccurate, and misleading Technical Orders utilized in maintaining the OC/WC/TC/RC-135 aircraft – a claim supported by a September 2007 Comprehensive Air Force Technical Order Plan. The 55th Wing Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Commander thanked me by suspending my security clearance alleging that I am untrustworthy, a thief, suicidal, and a threat to wing personnel, then took credit for correcting many of the problems that I lawfully disclosed to Congress.
Despite the defamation of my character, I was successful at increasing the margin of safety for the Big Safari, Rivet Joint, Combat Sent, Constant Phoenix and Open Skies programs. Some of my concerns will never be aired, so I wish the best of luck to those who continue to operate the special mission C/KC-135 aircraft. To the United Kingdom which is replacing its aged Nimrod MR1 and MR2 aircraft with the even older RC-135; rest assured, the RC-135 is a safe airframe as long as it is properly maintained.
Sarris is a college graduate and lifelong aircraft mechanic whose career until blowing the whistle was marked by steady commendations, bonuses, and performance appraisals such as one that rated him “the employee that all supervisors desire.” That is, until 2007 when he began blowing the whistle at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Sarris’ watch was aircraft reconnaissance planes used for intelligence missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. But he discovered a dangerous breakdown in maintenance. For example, fuel, hydraulic and emergency hoses were up to 30 years past their service life, and not replaced until they visibly deteriorated. When Sarris’ official reports were ignored, he protested up the chain of command. When that led nowhere, he went to the Office of Inspector General (OIG), Congress, and media. Two months after a November 2008 front page Kansas City Star article spotlighted Sarris’ concerns, the Air Force suspended his security clearance.
The charges were surreal. For example, in part they were based on a criminal investigation opened of Sarris for theft of government property. The primary misconduct was Sarris acting on OIG instructions to get hard evidence, which he provided by taking pictures, and by removing highly decayed hoses from the trash to share with investigators. He was branded as professionally incompetent and mentally unfit, stripped of all duties. At one point, he was instructed not to leave the empty room where he was assigned without work, even if there were a fire. Eventually he got a fresh start in gym maintenance, peaceful but away from national security duties. Ironically, this occurred despite Sarris’ charges ultimately being confirmed, and leading to possibly life-saving corrective action.
The settlement allows Sarris to officially maintain his mechanic position with alternate duties until a 2014 retirement, even if his currently suspended clearance is revoked. It removes derogatory files, restores his performance appraisal to all “excellent” or “outstanding” ratings, and pays his attorney fees. Putting an exclamation point to vindication, the agreement explicitly permits him to further sue military officers in state court for violation of his rights.
Devine added, “This victory reflects new Merit Systems Protection Board leadership, which is no longer biased against whistleblowers. Even Administrative Judges are starting to get the message, and pressing parties for justice as here. Unfortunately, until Congress acts, whistleblowers like Mr. Sarris will not have independent due process rights against retaliatory removal of their security clearances. The Board did not have authority to restore his national security duties.”
The Government Accountability Project (GAP) is a 30-year-old nonprofit public interest group that promotes government and corporate accountability by advancing occupational free speech, defending whistleblowers, and empowering citizen activists. We pursue this mission through our Nuclear Safety, International Reform, Corporate Accountability, Food & Drug Safety, and Federal Employee/National Security programs. GAP is the nation's leading whistleblower protection organization.
I am very happy to hear that Mr. Sarris has prevailed in his battle. It does give one hope for the future, and maybe even for those of us out here in the civilian world.
Until this update was sent to me by Mr. Sarris, I'd never heard of GAP, and I'm still not sure how it works, but may try to learn more about it.
I guess what I'm wondering about is simple things like fresh water contamination from improper septic systems; improper disposal of dead animals, and things like that. Things that have never been seen as important by state and city officials in far too many areas of our country. In fact, it seems to me that the concerned citizen is usually the one that ends up with all kinds of threats, intimidation and harassment. I've never understood, but I've certainly seen it .... and can still prove where, when, who, why, etc. Yep, may just check into this a little further.
The Whistle Blower Series