Lim­its on in­spec­tors gen­eral gath­er­ing data are crit­i­cized

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY LISA REIN lisa.rein@wash­post.com

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has ruled that in­spec­tors gen­eral have to get per­mis­sion from the agency they’re mon­i­tor­ing for ac­cess to wire­taps, grand jury and credit in­for­ma­tion, a de­ci­sion that im­me­di­ately was de­nounced by watch­dogs and law­mak­ers.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral said the 58-page rul­ing re­leased Thurs­day by the depart­ment’s of­fice of le­gal coun­sel will un­der­mine his abil­ity to do his job root­ing out fraud and cor­rup­tion.

“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.

His dis­ap­proval was fol­lowed by a bi­par­ti­san con­dem­na­tion from four con­gres­sional lead­ers whose com­mit­tees have over­sight over the Jus­tice Depart­ment, cit­ing nu­mer­ous in­quiries the agency has de­layed or blocked by mak­ing it harder for in­ves­ti­ga­tors to get the records they need, par­tic­u­larly in­ter­cepted com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

“The depart­ment’s re­fusal to pro­vide records on a timely ba­sis as re­quired by law wastes months in bu­reau­cratic road­blocks and frus­trates the in­de­pen­dent over­sight Congress cre­ated in­spec­tors gen­eral to pro­vide,” Sens. Charles E. Grass­ley (R-Iowa) and Ron John­son (R-Wis.), and Reps. Bob Good­latte (R-Va.) and John Cony­ers Jr. (D-Mich.) said in a joint state­ment, ac­cus­ing the le­gal coun­sel’s of­fice of un­der­min­ing the in­de­pen­dence of fed­eral watch­dogs.

The rare in­ternecine con­flict dates to 2010, when the FBI started re­strict­ing the Jus­tice Depart­ment in­spec­tor gen­eral’s ac­cess to doc­u­ments whose con­fi­den­tial­ity is pro­tected by law, in­clud­ing grand jury tes­ti­mony and wire­taps. The in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­view of the con­tro­ver­sial “Fast and Fu­ri­ous” case — the failed sting op­er­a­tion that lost track of more than 1,000 gov­ern­men­tis­sued guns, one of which was used to kill a Bor­der Pa­trol agent — was de­layed.

Other in­ves­ti­ga­tions have lagged, Horowitz tes­ti­fied be­fore Congress in Fe­bru­ary, com­plain­ing that the FBI has failed to turn over key records in sev­eral whistle­blower cases, cit­ing other na­tional se­cu­rity and pri­vacy laws. The law­mak­ers said Thurs­day that the de­layed cases in­clude pend­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions into wrong­do­ing at the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The le­gal coun­sel, which acts as a kind of supreme court for the ex­ec­u­tive branch, fi­nally ruled on the dis­pute on July 20.

Jus­tice Depart­ment spokes­woman Emily Pierce said in a state­ment that the opin­ion al­lows in­spec­tor gen­eral ac­cess to sen­si­tive lawen­force­ment in­for­ma­tion “in con­nec­tion with his re­spon­si­bil­ity to see the Depart­ment’s con­duct of its crim­i­nal law en­force­ment pro­grams and oper­a­tions and its for­eign coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tions.”

She said the agency is try­ing to hand over these records faster than it had. “The Depart­ment has long held the po­si­tion that the In­spec­tor Gen­eral should have ac­cess to all the in­for­ma­tion it needs to per­form its es­sen­tial over­sight func­tion.”

But the 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 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 some doc­u­ments they said 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.”

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