NSA staff lacks job protection, study says GAO report finds that other federal workers have better conditions

March 24, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Tens of thousands of workers at the National Security Agency and other spy agencies do not have the same personnel protections as other federal employees, according to a government study released today, leading one lawmaker to press for changes at what she termed "the last plantation."

The General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog arm, found that most workers at Fort Meade-based NSA, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency are unable to appeal adverse actions such as reduction in pay, suspension or removal.

Congress exempted the spy agencies from the personnel protections for reasons of national security, although the GAO study concluded that that should change.

"GAO sees no reason for treating employees at these intelligence agencies differently from employees at other federal agencies except in rare national security cases," the report said.

But both the CIA and the Pentagon which oversees both NSA and DIA strongly opposed any change, arguing that the GAO did not adequately consider either national security considerations or the administrative costs involved.

"For most employees at the CIA, NSA or DIA, there is no such thing as due process," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat who requested the report, terming the spy agencies "the last plantation when it comes to employee rights."

Mrs. Schroeder, a member of the House National Security Committee, is expected to meet with CIA Director John M. Deutch to urge that the spy agencies come under federal personnel laws, and might introduce legislation to force the changes, an aide said.

Currently, only military veterans at NSA and DIA can appeal adverse actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), which handles federal employee appeals. Military veterans make about 21 percent of NSA's work force and 32 percent at DIA. No CIA employees can appeal to the board.

The precise number of workers inside the intelligence community is classified, although sources inside and outside the agencies have offered estimates. NSA has about 20,000 workers at Fort Meade, making it Maryland's largest single employer, and tens of thousands more around the world. The CIA employs about 15,000 at its headquarters in Langley, Va., while DIA has about 10,000 to 13,000 employees. "There is no national security rationale for the different treatment of veterans and nonveterans by the different agencies," the GAO found.

The GAO reviewed recent MSPB case files forwarded by both NSA and DIA employees and found that 39 of the 40 cases "contained no classified national security information."

If all intelligence community workers were granted standard federal protections against adverse actions, the agencies could still take several steps to protect national security information, the GAO report said.

The agencies could continue current procedures to keep classified information out of adverse action files, it said, noting that all three agencies have experience in preparing cases for either the MSPB or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that holds hearings on discrimination complaints. Employees at all three spy agencies can pursue such complaints through EEO and through civil actions in federal court.

"In a recent EEO court case, CIA's preparation of documents demonstrates that information on sensitive intelligence operations can be converted into unclassified publicly available documents," the GAO found.

The GAO report said CIA workers have even fewer rights than their colleagues at NSA and DIA. While NSA and DIA employees must receive advance notice of any adverse action, be able to reply to charges, have representation and receive a final written decision, the CIA director has the power to waive these protections.

"CIA regulations provide the director with carte blanche authority to remove employees," the report found. "The director's decisions to remove any employee are not limited by law, they do not have to be based on national security, and the director is not accountable to anyone for such decisions."

But CIA executive director Nora Slotkin, in a letter that accompanied the report, said the CIA director is accountable to both intelligence committees of Congress as well as to the president. Further, employees who believe they were terminated unfairly can take the matter up with either the CIA's inspector general or the president's foreign intelligence advisory board.

Ms. Slotkin also wrote that there is a "false analogy" in comparing EEO cases and adverse actions. EEO cases usually do not involve as much classified information, since they concern "disparate treatment" and are not linked to an employee's performance, she said. But an MSPB review of terminations or other adverse actions, she said, "would almost inevitably lead to disclosure of highly classified information to outside parties."

The GAO's conclusions also were opposed by Assistant Secretary of Defense Emmett Paige Jr., who oversees Pentagon intelligence operations. "It is the [Pentagon's] position that a change of policy would not adequately consider the risks to sensitive or classified information likely in any litigation," he wrote.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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