TAMPA, Florida — She worked on and off for five years identifying targets for the U.S. military’s Central Command.
And then, when, some believe, she spoke up about cherry-picked intelligence in the ISIS war, she was drummed out of her job—allegedly for cursing twice in the span of the year.
Those were just some of the surreal allegations thrown around last week in a Tampa law office conference room turned into a quasi-courtroom.
Had the case not involved the third-highest ranking person at the Defense Intelligence Agency, a two-star general, a military judge, and hours of testimony—all at a cost of thousands of dollars—it would have been hard to take seriously. Even with those high-ranking officials, at times it was hard not to do a double-take about what was happening.
After all, if cursing were really a fireable offense in the military, every soldier, sailor, Marine, and Defense Department civilian would have to be sent home.
The case suggested that, at CENTCOM, there are two wars being waged: one against ISIS and a separate internal fight between whistleblowers and commanders. This all came to the fore during a rare public hearing last Wednesday before the government appeals board, brought by a subordinate of Gregory Ryckman, the top-ranking civilian at CENTCOM’s Joint Intelligence office, known as the J2.
The woman at the center of the case makes a now-familiar allegation: that the same military officials who cherry-picked information about the ISIS war and downplayed the terror group’s rising threat also selectively picked information about her. The Pentagon inspector general now is investigating whether CENTCOM officials, including Ryckman, watered down assessments on the rising jihadist threat to comport with the White House.
The woman at the center of the controversy in this case, Carolyn Stewart, is a small person with a big voice. The Army veteran seemingly is demure at first glance, with shoulder-length light brown hair. But as soon as she speaks, it is clear she is not afraid to say exactly what she thinks.
She repeatedly prodded her lawyer throughout the day-long hearing about which questions to ask, which evidence to present, and which details to point out in her favor.
The hearing was a window into how allegations of toxic work environments, faulty reports, and bad leadership consumed the office tasked with leading CENTCOM’s intelligence gathering. At issue during the hours-long hearing was whether Stewart cursed at CENTCOM, and if she did curse, whether that created a hostile work environment.
“I went to other action officers to avoid Ms. Stewart,” one witness explained to the judge, in support of the decision to reassign her.
The hearing, held through a teleconference connecting DIA lawyers in Washington with a judge in Atlanta and the complainant in Tampa, had all the markings of a proper trial. Someone wore a robe and lawyers yelled out objections.
But one couldn’t help thinking it was like an episode of The Office. Those charged with helping target ISIS terrorists were instead obsessed with things like who “bitched out” whom. The government claimed she said it to another woman. Another witnesses said someone else said those words to Stewart.
It is worth noting that such debates were occupying a command post tasked with leading the war on ISIS. And yet the key issue of the time was how precisely Stewart handled a colleague telling her he would not adjust a target order.
“Did she toss the papers down or did she place them down?” a government lawyer asked a witness.
In the midst of the war against ISIS, the highest-ranking general in charge of intelligence gathering sat for hours waiting in a Tampa law office to testify for all of 15 minutes. The Defense Intelligence Agency chief of staff, the third-highest ranking member of that office, testified for hours over why she decided that a few curses could not be tolerated in an office that helped determine which suspected ISIS members should be targeted for death from above.
The Pentagon’s inspector general already is investigating a claim by J2 analysts, who are separate from those who conduct targeting, that they were pressured to tone down their analysis of a rising jihadist threat in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 50 analysts have made such allegations, and the IG’s findings are expected any time.
Stewart’s alleged cursing came at a turning point in the war in Syria and against ISIS. In August 2013, the Obama administration was considering launching strikes in Syria for crossing the self-proclaimed “red line” and deploying chemical weapons. That same month, Stewart supposedly used foul language when a subordinate wrote an incomplete report. A year later, just after the self-proclaimed Islamic State took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, CENTCOM alleged that Stewart cursed at a subordinate for filing an overtime form incorrectly.
Ryckman forwarded the complaint to the Defense Intelligence Agency two months after Stewart had filed a complaint against Ryckman. In between, CENTCOM’s Chief of Staff ordered an Army investigation known as a 15-6 into workplace behavior in the targeting office. Stewart’s lawyer alleged that Ryckman altered the 15-6 to take out comments from some of the 100-plus employees who are part of targeting that were complimentary of Stewart.
The DIA chief of staff, Suzanne White, concluded that while Stewart’s behavior didn’t create a hostile work environment, it was “unbecoming.” Stewart was suspended for 15 days. White later found that Stewart had lost the confidence of her bosses and therefore needed to be reassigned to Charlottesville, Virginia, where a DIA office focuses on cyber warfare.
Stewart is appealing that decision to the United States Merit System Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency in which federal employees suspended more than 14 days can appeal their cases. The board is supposed to be independent, but the statistics suggest otherwise. It has found in favor of the Defense Department in 99.7 percent of cases put before it, according to the latest statistics.
The judge said Ryckman did not need to testify because the final decision was White’s, not his. The government did not call the two people Stewart allegedly had a confrontation with. In depositions leading up to the hearing, Stewart conceded she “may” have used profanity in the workplace, which the government argued was cause to move her out of the ISIS fight.
CENTCOM declined to comment about the specifics of the case, but said it backed the process.
“It is important to allow the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board time to complete its review and take a full accounting of the facts. Before that time, it would be premature and inappropriate to comment,” Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a CENTCOM spokesman, said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
The judge said he would rule “soon,” but the damage had already been done. Defense officials said commanders already look for alternative or secondary sourcing to what the J2 produces. The general in charge of CENTCOM, for example, has has various venues to intelligence and can bypass the drama inside the J2 by turning to other agencies that also do assessments on the U.S. effort against ISIS. And decisions about targeting have since moved to the commanders in Iraq.
All of which leaves the bosses in Tampa plenty of time to debate how many curses are too many for CENTCOM’s sensitive ears.