U.S. Watchdog Investigations Imperiled by Obama Fixation on Government Secrecy

Monday, November 30, 2015
(graphic: Getty Images)

The Obama administration, by consistently refusing to turn over documents and information, has gone out of its way to make it more difficult for the inspectors general of executive branch agencies to do their jobs.


The concept of inspectors general investigating executive branch departments and agencies came into being in the late 1970s after the Watergate scandal. The idea was that inspectors general would have free rein to investigate wrongdoing in their departments and bring government abuse to light.


But thanks to an obsession with secrecy on the part of the Obama administration, inspectors general who previously had access to all documents, emails and other information have had to beg for evidence, which is often produced after months of requests and is sometimes heavily redacted.


“The bottom line is that we’re no longer independent,” Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general, told The New York Times.


More than three decades of established federal policy that gave watchdogs unrestricted access to government records in their investigations is now at serious risk of being undone. That includes “at least 20 investigations across the government that have been slowed, stymied or sometimes closed because of a long-simmering dispute between the Obama administration and its own watchdogs over the shrinking access of inspectors general to confidential records,” according to the Times’ Eric Lichtblau.


Justice Department lawyers wrote an opinion last summer that stated grand jury transcripts, wiretap intercepts and financial credit reports and some other “protected records” could be withheld from inspectors general. As a result of that order, investigators who need to review government records are now required to get permission from the very agencies they are monitoring in order to do so.


“This is by far the most aggressive assault on the inspector general concept since the beginning,” Paul Light, a New York University professor who has studied inspectors general, told the Times. “It’s the complete evisceration of the concept. You might as well fold them down. They’ve become defanged.”


Among the investigations being hindered are those involving FBI use of phone records collected by the NSA, the DEA’s role in the shooting of unarmed civilians in Honduras drug raids, international trade agreement enforcement at the Commerce Department, the “Fast and Furious” gun operation, intelligence relating to the Boston Marathon bombings, and additional cases at the Afghanistan reconstruction board, the EPA and the Postal Service.


Even the Peace Corps has worked to prevent access to records. The agency’s inspector general was denied information when looking into cases of sexual abuse of Peace Corps volunteers. This despite claims that the agency is in favor of “rigorous oversight” and that it cooperated with investigators.


The situation has drawn criticism from both Republicans and Democrats. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said of a plan to give the Justice Department inspector general more access, but not those at other agencies, “It’s no fix at all.” His colleague on the committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) said at a hearing that the Obama administration has “blocked what was once a free flow of information” to investigators.


Justice IG Horowitz said the consequence of the watchdog clampdown may be an increase in cases of waste, fraud and abuse across the government.

-Steve Straehley, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Tighter Lid on Records Threatens to Weaken Government Watchdogs (by Eric Lichtblau, New York Times)

Gov’t Watchdogs Urge Congress to Reverse Obama Administration IG Crackdown (Fox News)

Pentagon Stonewalls U.S. Watchdog’s Inquiries into $800 Million Afghanistan Program (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Justice Department Tries to Limit Inspectors General Access to Government Documents (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

FBI Claims it Doesn’t Have to Share Records with Justice Dept. Inspector General (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

The High Cost of Secrecy to American Taxpayers (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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