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NCIS boss tackles agent anxiety from forced moves

System has outraged some agents

Jan. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Naval Criminal Investigative Service
Many NCIS agents have expressed support for movements put in place by new leadership to change the agency's transfer policy. (MC1 R. Jason Brunson / Navy)
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The new boss of the Navy’s law enforcement agency is reassessing the policies behind dozens of deeply unpopular forced moves that drove out scores of seasoned agents and hurt agency morale in the past year.

The controversy, which burst into public view in 2013, remains one of the smoldering issues faced by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Andrew Traver, who became NCIS director in October, plans to re-institute a hardship board where agents can appeal transfers and is calling for defined career tracks in an agency that dispatches agents around the world to support Navy missions. But the forced transfers — which some called a force-out campaign against seasoned agents — unleashed a wave of anxiety across the 2,000-person agency similar to the unrest left by the Navy’s enlisted retention boards.

“I know there was some really contentious issues about it,” Traver told Navy Times in an interview a month after taking charge. “The needs of the service always have to come first, but I don’t think you can forsake the needs of the individual. I think you have to look at many of these cases on an individual basis.”

Traver has told agents he’s determined to address these issues because of the widespread discontent they’ve caused, even if the inspector general report found no evidence of retribution or ethical lapses by NCIS leaders. Traver’s remarks are an abrupt change from the previous regime, whose leaders insisted agents must be globally assignable and viewed it as a rite of passage for careerists. But they were accused of insufficient leniency, especially for a number of hard-luck cases.

For instance, one career agent, a Navy Reserve O-6, appealed his involuntary relocation out of concern that the move would disrupt the care of his autistic son. It was disapproved.

In a similar case, an 11-year veteran reported he was being pressured to apply for jobs outside of Jacksonville, Fla., which he resisted because that’s where his 8-year-old boy was receiving treatment for leukemia. That agent, Special Agent Michael Maloney, received a letter of caution from his supervisor for telling Navy Times about his personal situation; he left the agency later that year rather than accept a forced move.

'Jack of all trades'

Traver has instituted an ombudsman and a director’s advisory council and has toured a dozen or so field offices around the country to meet agents and hear their concerns. But he, too, is getting pushback, agents say.

At one town hall meeting, a pregnant woman spoke up. She was asking for a hardship transfer to be co-located with her spouse, who was in the military. Traver said, “OK, your hardship’s approved,” according to Traver’s retelling of the story at another all-hands call.

The female agent was surprised and asked if she should resubmit her paperwork. Traver said, “No, no. It’s approved,” according to an agent present at the December town hall meeting in Pensacola, Fla., where Traver retold the story.

“He said when he got back to headquarters, ‘You wouldn’t believe the s--- I got for that,’ ” the agent recalled Traver telling the audience.

But if moves like these have ruffled feathers with NCIS supervisors, they’ve inspired street agents. Many see him as saying all the right things, including insisting that headquarters serve the field offices — not the other way around.

Morale is already starting to improve, some say.

“I know everybody in my office when we left the all-hands meeting, we were proverbially pounding our chests,” said the field agent, who asked to remain anonymous to speak about internal NCIS issues. “Already the morale has shot through the roof from where it was.”

NCIS is still developing the career tracks, a concept akin to the timelines used to manage enlisted and officer careers in the Navy. Traver said he believes they need to lay out at least two tracks: one for those aspiring to be career investigators and a second for those aspiring to be supervisors, including special agents in charge — the equivalent to command in NCIS.

Some former agents hailed those as the right steps, saying that missions like counterintelligence or cyber demand expertise and that uprooting seasoned specialists was disruptive, not to mention expensive. A career track could develop better supervisors and more specialized agents, they say.

“In NCIS, we were like the jack of all trades and master of none,” said Steven Morrison, a former counterintelligence agent who left the agency in late 2012 after he was involuntarily relocated. “That works OK at a base level for a new agent ... but at some point, especially for the jobs that are very unique, you’re going to need to have some specialists doing those jobs.”

Morrison filed the IG complaint and has been an outspoken critic of the forced moves. Even though the IG turned up no evidence of wrong-doing, Morrison believes his efforts and those of others who came forward were ultimately successful because they exposed internal discord at the agency and may have contributed to the decision to bring in Traver, the first outside director in 16 years.

“I’d like to think that me and the people that stood up and got that whole thing rolling, maybe it was enough of a pressure on the train that it forced it to go onto the track to the left instead of the one to the right,” Morrison said.

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