Stay Updated on Developing Stories

Grassley blocks top spy lawyer's confirmation over whistleblower rights concerns

Washington(CNN) Last week, quietly and without fanfare, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley blocked President Donald Trump's nominee to be the intelligence community's top lawyer, the General Counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Jason Klitenic.

While Grassley made it clear in the congressional record he has "no concerns regarding Mr. Klitenic's capabilities or qualifications," he explained that he'd be blocking his passage until the top spy in Washington, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, responds to urgent questions about the intelligence community's protection of whistleblowers.

Jason Klitenic Partner at Holland & Knight

Grassley's hold-up, which went virtually unnoticed by the press, comes at a time when the intelligence community is in flux.

Trump recently nominated current CIA Director Mike Pompeo to be the next secretary of state, and agency veteran Gina Haspel, who is wrapped up in a debate over her involvement in the Bush-era interrogation programs, to be the next CIA director -- both of whom still face confirmation hearings.

Additionally, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, led by Coats, announced last Thursday it would be kicking off a 100-day "transition period" to "streamline" the agency, though it's unclear exactly what that means.

Grassley is putting pressure on one of the agency's most important nominees, its top lawyer, in order to force Coats to respond to inquiries about problems with whistleblower protections in a separate department -- the Inspector General's office.

Grassley addressed the President in the Congressional Record last Monday, explaining that he had sent Coats a letter in November after learning about "disturbing allegations" concerning internal chaos within the intelligence community's top watchdog agency, the Intelligence Community Inspector General, or the IC IG. He said he has not received any response to those questions.

Grassley said his office was informed that the acting director of the IC IG, Wayne Stone, had fired his executive director, Dan Meyer, "as part of an effort to significantly weaken the IC IG's role in ensuring consistent and effective whistleblower protections throughout the intelligence community."

In a previous letter to Coats on March 6, Grassley wrote that the decision to fire Meyer was caught up in a process "marked by procedural irregularities and conflicts of interest" during "an extended period during which the acting leadership of the OIG demonstrated a lack of support for the critical whistleblower protection mission of the office."

Grassley's office did not respond to requests for additional comment from CNN.

The IC IG, established in 2010, investigates reports of illegal activity, waste, fraud, and abuse across the entire intelligence community, and implements Obama-era policies to extend additional protection to whistleblowers alleging retaliation within their own agencies for raising concerns legitimately.

The IC IG was involved in reviewing concerns that former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had mishandled classified information through the use of personal email, as well as an intelligence community-wide review of the handling of the Boston Marathon bombing.

In recent months, press reports from Foreign Policy Magazine and others indicated that the Intelligence Community Inspector General was mired in chaos brought about by internal personality clashes, absentee officials, and lengthy wait periods for complaint investigations.

The Intelligence Community Inspector General recently fired Meyer, the official in charge of whistleblower outreach for the agency, after months of sidelining him and without any plans to keep the outreach office running. Grassley confirmed that he had received similar information about trouble within the agency ranks, and directly expressed concern over its efficacy and independence within the Congressional record and in a letter to Coats.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on any concerns it might have over Grassley's hold.

The Office of the Inspector General told CNN it "maintains appropriate accountability to the Congress through intelligence oversight committees."

The Senate Intelligence Committee has also directed tough questions to the IC IG about recent turmoil within its ranks. "Beyond statutory obligations and appropriately coordinated public release actions, this office restricts discussion of its activities to official channels," Monica Tullos, a spokeswoman for the IC IG wrote in an email to CNN.

"It is a travesty of justice for intelligence agencies to demand that national security whistleblowers go through proper channels, then to blow up those very channels," Louis Clark, the executive director of the Government Accountability Project, wrote in a statement to CNN. "Senator Grassley has demanded answers about what is going on now that the head of this vital whistleblower support program has himself become a whistleblower. We applaud the senator for once again standing up for the whistleblowers and exercising proper oversight at a time of serious crisis within the intelligence community."

Currently, the IC IG is also awaiting its next chief's nomination to pass through Congress.

Michael Atkinson, the watchdog agency's nominee, acknowledged concerns that the agency was dysfunctional in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, and announced his plans to address those concerns if confirmed.

"This is a poor and an ultimately unsustainable impression for the Committee to have of the [Intelligence Community Inspector General," he said. "The impression is that the cause of these current problems is internal. This needs to change ... Simply put, the (Intelligence Community Inspector General) needs to get its own house in order."

On the need for a transition period, Tim Barrett, a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told CNN that "ODNI's Transformation will position us to drive the Intelligence Community on the most critical issues, to streamline and focus the agency in order to reinvest in priority areas, and to create a more effective ODNI that delivers impact and value with every action. We have entered a roughly 100-day transition period before implementing our transformation, which is the result of a comprehensive review of ODNI, something DNI Coats pledged to lead during his confirmation hearing."

This article has been updated to include a quote from a spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.