Muzzling the watchdogs


The following editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, Dec. 28:

Since Congress created the first inspectors general for federal agencies in 1978, these in-house watchdogs have proved their worth again and again. Inspectors general have investigated the CIA’s inhumane “enhanced interrogation methods,” revealed abuses in the FBI’s acquisition of telephone and other records, and documented the selective enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service of regulations governing political spending by tax-exempt groups.

Given the nature of their mission, it is not terribly surprising to learn from inspectors general for several federal agencies that their work is being hampered by the unwillingness of the officials they monitor to provide some necessary information — despite the fact that the Inspector General Act requires that inspectors general have access to “all records, reports, audits, reviews, documents, papers, recommendations or other material” necessary to do their job.

The Justice Department has come under particular — and deserved — criticism for stymieing the work of its inspector general. Beginning in 2010, FBI lawyers argued that some records couldn’t be shared because of protections in federal law. In July, the department’s Office of Legal Counsel concluded that the inspector general could be denied access to some information in three categories: the contents of wiretaps, grand jury proceedings and credit information.

The author of that opinion, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Karl R. Thompson, concluded that the Inspector General Act’s requirement that inspectors general have access to “all records” must be qualified in light of the provisions of the federal Wiretap Act, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and Section 626 of the Fair Credit Reporting Act. His opinion said that the department could provide the inspector general with information protected by these laws for “many, but not all” of its investigations.

That isn’t good enough for Michael E. Horowitz, the department’s inspector general, who said that without greater access “our office’s ability to conduct its work will be significantly impaired.” But the problem isn’t confined to the Justice Department. In a letter to congressional leaders, the council representing inspectors general from throughout the government warned that the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion “represents a potentially serious challenge to the authority of every inspector general and our collective ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently and in a timely manner.”

In fairness to the Justice Department, laws must be read in conjunction with others. And, legal interpretation aside, it’s important to protect the privacy of personal information, including financial records and the products of electronic surveillance, which can capture private conversations of innocent people. But in such sensitive situations, information can be provided to inspectors general with the understanding that it will be redacted in any public report.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said that the department would support legislation to clarify Congress’ intent. Fortunately, there is a bipartisan effort in Congress to make it clear that, irrespective of other laws, inspectors general are entitled to “all records” necessary for them to perform their vital function. Enacting such a law must be a priority when Congress returns to work.

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