Friday, August 14, 2015
Whistleblowers Blowing the Whistle at Other Whistleblowers – Inspectors General
Our government is supposed to be built on systems of checks and balances. We all should cringe the minute there is an opportunity for any government agency to dive into the shadows, particularly where there is realistically no way to examine their officials and their practices from any outside objective source. While I certainly understand the need for clandestine operations in certain military and intelligence operations, even police investigations in process, the need to monitor even these operations – generally through designated courts – becomes essential. I always get nervous when someone in government demands complete secrecy.
There are other checks and balances, often resisted by the agencies from which operational information is sought. The press has been one of our most effective watchdogs, enhanced with statutory rights such as the Freedom of Information Act, although agencies often do whatever they can to make sure they can continue to implement their imperious rule without oversight. My recent blog about our lack of transparency within our prison systems – my July 7th Opaque, Shrouded, Cruel and Dangerous – is one grossly unacceptable example.
Other checks on imperious, corrupt or grossly inefficient governmental operations can emanate from internal whistleblowers, who are supposed to be protected under statute but often are disciplined anyway, or officially-independent designated inspectors general. Today’s inquiry focuses on this unique aspect of governmental watchdog official – the inspector general.
“In the United States, an inspector general leads an organization charged with examining the actions of a government agency, military organization, or military contractor as a general auditor of their operations to ensure they are operating in compliance with generally established policies of the government, to audit the effectiveness of security procedures, or to discover the possibility of misconduct, waste, fraud, theft, or certain types of criminal activity by individuals or groups related to the agency's operation, usually involving some misuse of the organization's funds or credit. In the United States, there are numerous offices of inspector general at the federal, state, and local levels…
“There are 73 federal offices of inspectors general, a significant increase since the statutory creation of the initial 12 offices by the Inspector General Act of 1978. The offices employ special agents (criminal investigators, often armed) and auditors. In addition, federal offices of inspectors general employ forensic auditors, or ‘audigators,’ evaluators, inspectors, administrative investigators, and a variety of other specialists… The Inspector General Reform Act of 2008 (IGRA) amended the 1978 act by increasing pay and various powers and creating the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).
“Some inspectors general, the heads of the offices, are appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate. For example, both the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the inspector general of the U.S. Agency for International Development are presidentially appointed. The remaining inspectors general are designated by their respective agency heads, such as the U.S. Postal Service inspector general. Presidentially appointed IGs can only be removed, or terminated, from their positions by the President of the United States, whereas designated inspectors general can be terminated by the agency head. However, in both cases Congress must be notified of the termination, removal, or reassignment.” Wikipedia
For those IGs not appointed by their own agencies, those who are part of overall responsibility for any governmental operations able to examine any federal agency, one would think that they have a strong ability to move into any agency they choose, to demand documents, seek a judicially-approved right to secure wiretaps and generally conduct a thorough, independent investigation without fear of restriction from the agencies they are scrutinizing. Not if you accept the conclusion of a recent 58-page ruling issued by the Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel (a sort of internal, executive branch “supreme court”), indicating that when investigating another agency, the IG would first have to get prior permission from the agency he/she intends to investigate in order to access to wiretaps, grand jury and credit information. Really?!
“‘Without such access, our office’s ability to conduct its work will be significantly impaired, and it will be more difficult for us to detect and deter waste, fraud, and abuse, and to protect taxpayer dollars,’ Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz said in a statement. Horowitz is chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, a watchdog over the watchdogs that also sets policy… ‘Congress meant what it said when it authorized Inspectors General to independently access ‘all’ documents necessary to conduct effective oversight,’ he said.” The Washington Post, July 24th. Bipartisan condemnation of this ruling among key members of Congress was instantaneous. Former IGs echoed these sentiments.
“[T]he policy is likely to dampen the effectiveness of watchdogs across the government, officials said, since many inspectors general seek access to similar records as the Justice Department… ‘Imagine if we had a DOJ [inspector general] during Watergate looking at the FBI’s conduct and the Attorney General had this opinion to deny or delay access to this kind of information,’ said Brian Miller, the former inspector general at the General Services Administration who cracked open a spending scandal in Las Vegas. ‘Or the GSA [General Services Administration] administrator having the power to withhold certain information regarding the Las Vegas conference…The ‘Mother May I’ legal opinion sets a bad precedent and will slow effective oversight.’
“A year ago, 47 federal inspectors general wrote a letter to Congress complaining that the agencies they oversee had refused to release documents that were critical to their jobs as independent watchdogs.
“Congress, when it approved the Justice Department’s budget last year, included a section intended to improve watchdogs’ access to sensitive records. But the legal counsel ruled that wiretap law and grand-jury secrecy rules preclude the release of information for investigations ‘that are only tangentially related to criminal law enforcement or foreign counterintelligence efforts,’ such as ‘routine financial audits.’” The Post. This ruling is wrong, so wrong, that it demands immediate rejection by Congress… and it would seem that this is an issue that both sides of the aisle can agree on. Get to it!
I’m Peter Dekom, and anything that enhances checks and balances and justifiable transparency for governmental officials would seem to among the most essential requirements for a functioning democracy.