When potential whistleblowers come to Daniel Meyer in the Defense Department Inspector General’s office, it’s easy for him to relate to what they’re going through.
He once was in their shoes.
Meyer became a tipster in 1989, after a gun turret explosion on the USS Iowa killed 47 sailors. He had been an officer on the ship and came forward with information about a cover-up that was later turned into the book and movie “A Glimpse of Hell.”
Now, at age 47, Meyer is on the other side of the table in the Pentagon’s IG office, providing counsel and working on reprisal cases as the director of whistleblowing and transparency.
Along his road from whistleblower to whistleblower-protector, Meyer became an attorney, helping employees sue the Pentagon, and led his town’s fight against being the setting for “The Blair Witch Project.”
In a wide-ranging interview with The Hill, Meyer said his experiences are invaluable when he counsels people who are considering blowing the lid on scandals or unethical conduct.
“It might be a surprise, but I was actually treated very well by the Navy,” Meyer said. “I will tell certain whistleblowers I talk to a couple of times: Have you checked with your spouse, have you talked with your teenage children, talked with trusted family members?
“Because some people run the danger of the whistleblowing becoming part of their identity,” he said. “I think that’s injurious for whistleblowers, at the end of the day.”
Meyer took on the role of whistleblower in the aftermath of one of the Navy’s deadliest peacetime explosions, an explosion in the USS Iowa’s Turret Two.
The Navy initially accused a crewmember of deliberately causing the explosion, but Meyer had information that suggested that story was a lie. He first took the information to a Senate Armed Services staffer, and eventually turned his notes over to “60 Minutes” journalist Charles Thompson.
“After I did that I had no more nightmares, no more night sweats,” Meyer said. “The whole issue of being able to put the issue over onto somebody else’s plate can be a great relief for whistleblowers. That’s part of what we do at the IG.”
Meyer said members of the Navy treated him fairly in the aftermath, particularly his mentor, Adm. Jeremy Boorda, but he decided to leave the military and was honorably discharged as a lieutenant.
“My decision to leave the Navy was predicated more on the fact that I knew the Iowa story would linger far after people like Adm. Boorda were gone,” Meyer said.
He was not done with the Iowa affair, however. Thompson turned the story into a book, “A Glimpse of Hell,” which was then adapted into a TV movie starring Robert Sean Leonard.
Meyer said watching the movie was an odd experience at times, such as when the producers turned a conversation he had with his mother into one with his father, and when they put a beer in his character’s hand because of an advertiser.
The movie, released in 2001, was not Meyer’s only go-round with the Hollywood crowd.
He was a vocal critic after Burkittsville, Md., a town with a population under 200, was featured in “The Blair Witch Project.” Residents like Meyer were enraged that the state was actively helping with the movie.
“It was very annoying that this was happening, that we didn’t know it was going to happen, and that most of it had been sponsored by the state of Maryland tourism office,” Meyer said. “There were people digging dirt out of our cemetery, people showing up as witches.”
Following the Blair Witch affair, Meyer became the mayor of the town for several years, a volunteer position.
After leaving the military, Meyer went to law school and served as general counsel for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) before joining the DOD.
He was recruited to join the IG office in 2004 for a new job created to investigate reprisals against civilian employees.
“At the time I had a pretty full docket of suing on behalf of DOD employees,” Meyer said of his PEER job. “So my former supervisor, who got to pick the first director of civilian reprisal investigations, decided he would not only go against Dan Meyer — he’d pick Dan Meyer.”
In 2010, Meyer moved from investigating reprisals to his current job as director of whistleblowing and transparency, a new position created by then-Inspector General Gordon Heddell.
Meyer compares his work to that of a hockey goaltender. “I’m basically grabbing the pucks that are sent to me, revolving in a couple of different areas,” he said, including working as a congressional and executive-branch liaison, in addition to handling whistleblowers themselves.
When Meyer speaks of whistleblowers, he compares their treatment in the workplace to the way the Civil Rights Act took decades to change people’s behaviors.
“It makes no difference how you do your job, whether you are of a certain race, age, disability, creed or religion, but it does make a difference on the job whether you’re a whistleblower or not,” Meyer said.
The Defense Department has dealt with countless high-profile whistleblower cases, from the Pentagon Papers to a story from McClatchy Newspapers this week where former employees alleged the National Reconnaissance Office was illegally collecting personal data of job applicants and employees.
Meyer said that he still sees a long way to go for the Pentagon on whistleblowing, particularly among the civilian leadership.
“Our senior executive service in the Department of Defense has got to get the religion,” Meyer said. “They have to not only get the word ‘snitch’ out of their vocabulary, they have to get out of their head as well.”
The DOD’s IG, however, has not always lived up to its job of protecting whistleblowers. A Government Accountability Office report found investigations into military reprisals were closed prematurely, and an internal report revealed inadequate protections were in place.
While the report was not about Meyer’s office specifically, he said that the criticism was well-received throughout the department. He said the leadership there has the experience and ideas to make it right.
Meyer said the best advice he had for would-be whistleblowers is that “anonymity is the whistleblower’s best friend.”
“The best thing for a whistleblower is to hand off the information and be comfortable with somebody else following up on the allegations,” he said.
“But I think that’s a very un-American thing to do. I think most Americans really want to be in the fight. And so it’s very hard for some people to drop and leave the issue.”