Watch­dogs, not lap­dogs

In­spec­tors gen­eral have come un­der fire just for do­ing their job. They need safe­guards.

Los Angeles Times - - Opinion - By Clark Kent Ervin

Stu­art w. bowen jr.’s job is to in­ves­ti­gate al­leged waste, fraud and mis­man­age­ment of the U.S. tax dol­lars be­ing used to re­build Iraq. He’s done that job so well that he is him­self un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

This is no sur­prise to me. Since as­sum­ing the post of spe­cial in­spec­tor gen­eral for Iraq re­con­struc­tion in 2004, Bowen has is­sued one damn­ing re­port af­ter an­other doc­u­ment­ing the mis­use of bil­lions of dol­lars that should have been used to re­store Iraq’s econ­omy and civil so­ci­ety. In do­ing so, he has em­bar­rassed the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and its al­lies in Congress. Em­bar­rass­ing them has proved to be some­thing that an in­spec­tor gen­eral does only at his peril.

But the law, and prin­ci­ple, re­quire in­spec­tors gen­eral to call things as they see them and let the po­lit­i­cal chips fall where they may. The po­si­tion was cre­ated by the In­spec­tor Gen­eral Act of 1978 so that fed­eral agen­cies would have an in­de­pen­dent, in­ter­nal watch­dog to en­sure that they are run ef­fec­tively, ef­fi­ciently and in ac­cor­dance with the law.

In the Bowen case, it’s worth not­ing that those mak­ing the al­le­ga­tions were all fired or de­moted by him — and that last year the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress tried to abol­ish his of­fice al­to­gether. Also, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion sur­faced last week, right on the heels of Bowen’s latest scathing re­port that con­cluded, in essence, that the Iraq re­con­struc­tion to date has been an ex­pen­sive fail­ure.

The ac­cu­sa­tions against Bowen in and of them­selves are not that se­ri­ous — that, for ex­am­ple, he ex­ceeded his ju­ris­dic­tion by in­ves­ti­gat­ing a par­tic­u­lar mat­ter and in­flated es­ti­mates of how much money his in­ves­ti­ga­tions have saved tax­pay­ers. Of course, if Bowen ac­tu­ally en­gaged in wrong­do­ing, he should pay the price. And, in any event, there should be a thor­ough (and prompt) in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But my bet is that this in­ves­ti­ga­tion is re­ally about muz­zling this par­tic­u­lar watch­dog and si­lenc­ing oth­ers who might con­tem­plate speak­ing sim­i­lar truths to power.

This hunch is based on per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. Dur­ing my time as in­spec­tor gen­eral of the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, I, like Bowen, is­sued one re­port af­ter an­other doc­u­ment­ing the mis­use of tax dol­lars as well as the more se­ri­ous fail­ure, time and again, to close gap­ing holes in our na­tion’s se­cu­rity. I too was in­ves­ti­gated (for not in­ves­ti­gat­ing a mat­ter I deemed be­yond my ju­ris­dic­tion in my pre­vi­ous post as State De­part­ment in­spec­tor gen­eral). No wrong­do­ing was es­tab­lished, mind you. But the re­sult was that my nom­i­na­tion to serve in a per­ma­nent ca­pac­ity (I’d re­ceived a re­cess ap­point­ment) stalled in the Se­nate, and I ul­ti­mately lost the sup­port of the White House.

Like the eight U.S. at­tor­neys whose fir­ings have cap­tured the at­ten­tion of Congress, sev­eral in­spec­tors gen­eral have re­cently drawn the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fire for putting prin­ci­ple be­fore pol­i­tics. (The head of the Gen­eral Ser­vices Ad­min­is­tra­tion went so far as to call its in­spec­tor gen­eral a “ter­ror­ist.”) So now is a good time for Congress to con­sider changes in the law to make it eas­ier for prin­ci­ple to pre­vail.

To start, in­spec­tors gen­eral should be ap­pointed to a fixed term, re­mov­able only for cause. At present, they serve at the “plea­sure of the pres­i­dent,” mean­ing they can be fired for any rea­son at any time. The scan­dal at the Jus­tice De­part­ment shows why such sub­jec­tive eval­u­a­tion is ill-suited for of­fi­cials who are sup­posed to be apo­lit­i­cal in the dis­charge of their du­ties.

Ad­di­tion­ally, in­spec­tors gen­eral should sub­mit their bud­get re­quests di­rectly to con­gres­sional ap­pro­pri­a­tors. Cur­rently, the ap­proval of the White House and the head of the agency are re­quired first — which means that an in­de­pen­dent and ag­gres­sive in­spec­tor gen­eral is more likely to get bud­get cuts than in­creases.

Next, we need to change the lead­er­ship of the com­mit­tee that in­ves­ti­gates wrong­do­ing by in­spec­tors gen­eral. The head of that com­mit­tee is the deputy di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get, which is part of the ex­ec­u­tive of­fice of the pres­i­dent. For the last few years, the oc­cu­pant of that post has been Clay John­son III, a long­time friend and aide to Pres­i­dent Bush.

Sim­ply put, the White House should not be in charge of in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cials who are sup­posed to be in­de­pen­dent of it. Dur­ing my time as in­spec­tor gen­eral at the Home­land Se­cu­rity De­part­ment, John­son vig­or­ously urged my coun­ter­parts and me to sign a state­ment of prin­ci­ples that, while in­nocu­ous in its par­tic­u­lars, had the over­all ef­fect of dis­cour­ag­ing us from in­ves­ti­gat­ing or re­port­ing any­thing that the ad­min­is­tra­tion might deem em­bar­rass­ing.

Fi­nally, Congress should elim­i­nate the le­gal pro­vi­sions that al­low the heads of cer­tain agen­cies (the Home­land Se­cu­rity, Jus­tice and Trea­sury de­part­ments, for in­stance) to block in­spec­tor gen­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tions into sen­si­tive mat­ters on na­tional se­cu­rity grounds. Agency heads can use this as an ex­cuse to pro­tect them­selves and the ad­min­is­tra­tion from sim­ple em­bar­rass­ment.

Th­ese changes make good pol­icy and po­lit­i­cal sense. Con­gres­sional Democrats will see it as in their in­ter­est to em­power in­spec­tors gen­eral to in­ves­ti­gate the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion more vig­or­ously. And Repub­li­cans should re­al­ize that even­tu­ally there will be an­other Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The key to mak­ing gov­ern­ment ef­fec­tive is hold­ing it ac­count­able. And a key way to hold gov­ern­ment ac­count­able is to make in­spec­tors gen­eral more ef­fec­tive. Clark Kent Ervin is the di­rec­tor of the Home­land Se­cu­rity Ini­tia­tive at the As­pen In­sti­tute and the au­thor of “Open Tar­get: Where Amer­ica is Vul­ner­a­ble to At­tack.”

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