The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in reporting about Washington is a simple one: watch what politicians do, not what they say. There can be no better illustration of this than Obama’s summit meeting with African leaders last week. He used the meeting as an opportunity to tout the positive role inspectors general can play in fighting corruption in government agencies; at the same time that he was speechifying about this, some two-thirds of President Obama’s own inspectors general wrote a scathing letter to Congress complaining that his administration was placing “serious limitations” on their ability to do their jobs.
Vice President Joe Biden told the African leaders just last Monday that there is “a need to have in every government agency what we in the United States call, and it could be different in every country, we call it an inspector general.” He went on to describe an IG as “someone who is able to roam through every department, like here in the United States, the Defense Department, the IRS, the Treasury Department writ large, the Department of Interior, to be able to look at the books, to be able to look at everything that’s transpired with independent eyes — people who cannot be fired.” He concluded that “widespread corruption is an affront to the dignity of people and a direct threat to each of your nations’ stability.”
Stirring words, but equally stirring were the words of the 47 out of 73 independent inspectors general who wrote to Congress just the day after Biden’s speech to emphasize the importance of “the principle that an Inspector General must have complete, unfiltered, and timely access to all information and materials available to the agency that relate to that Inspector General’s oversight activities, without unreasonable administrative burdens.” Referring to current IG investigations, they issued a stark warning:
Refusing, restricting, or delaying an Inspector General’s access to documents leads to incomplete, inaccurate, or significantly delayed findings or recommendations.#….#Even when we are ultimately able to resolve these issues with senior agency leadership, the process is often lengthy, delays our work, and diverts time and attention from substantive oversight activities. This is plainly is not what Congress intended when it passed the IG Act.
Back in the Watergate era, such delaying tactics were called stonewalling, and so angered the Congress that it passed, in 1978, the original IG act.
The IG letter to Congress last week cited several specific examples and was signed by IGs for the Treasury Department, the Justice Department, the Homeland Security Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and the National Security Agency. Many of the IGs who did not sign oversee very small agencies or congressional branch agencies that seldom have document-access needs of their own. It’s not as if the IGs are a clique of obsessive, conservative Inspector Javerts. President Obama appointed most of the IGs in office today, and all those who were appointed by him have been confirmed by a Democratic Senate.
That makes the complaints raised in the IGs’ letter all the more serious. More and more agencies are setting documents off-limits by declaring them “privileged.” The Peace Corps is said to have refused to provide documents for a probe into whether its administrators were properly handling charges of sexual abuse. The Environmental Protection Agency withheld documents by claiming they might fall under an attorney-client privilege, though the IGs’ letter makes clear that such privilege shouldn’t prevent another executive-branch official from reviewing them. Eric Holder’s Department of Justice withheld FBI records that had been previously produced to investigators in past administrations. FBI Director James Comey told Congress in June that the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel was still reviewing what “was a difference of view as to what the law permitted here.” A similar difference of view prompted the U.S. House to hold Attorney General Holder in contempt in 2012 for refusing to turn over documents related to the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal that resulted in the death of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.
The IGs’ concerns aren’t just parochial, as Jillian Melchior has also detailed recently at NRO. The IGs noted that their problems are “not unique” and that other investigators had “faced similar obstacles to their work.” Indeed, just last week Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, noted that more than 20 witnesses in the Obama administration have lost or deleted e-mails without notifying the National Archives or Congress, in violation of federal law. Lois Lerner is far from a unique character.
All of this led Senator Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, to note: “These non-partisan, independent-agency watchdogs say they are getting stonewalled. How are the watchdogs supposed to be able to do their jobs without agency cooperation?” Thomas Carper, the Democratic chair of the Senate Government Reform Committee, agreed that the IG letter “outlines serious concerns that are unacceptable.” He added that he will “continue to work closely with the inspectors general to address their concerns.”
It is time for both Republicans and independent Democrats to recognize the horrible precedent the Obama administration is setting for future White Houses. From the very beginning, the Obama team has been hostile to IG independence. In 2009, Gerald Walpin, the inspector general for the Americorps volunteer agency, was fired after he issued a report accusing Sacramento, Calif., mayor Kevin Johnson, a close Obama political ally, of misusing an $850,000 grant. Based on input from only two of the nine members of Americorps’ board, Walpin was declared “no longer fit for his job.” His ouster was engineered by Americorps chairman Alan Solomont, a prominent Democratic fundraiser. Later in 2009, the office of the Americorps IG was hit with a budget cut of nearly 50 percent.
Last year, President Obama boasted, “This is the most transparent administration in history.” If Republicans take control of the Senate, one of the first things they should insist upon is that President Obama deliver the transparency and openness he promised on the campaign trail but has prevented in practice. In the mold of Richard Nixon, the White House has asserted dubious claims of executive privilege to avoid scrutiny in the Fast and Furious scandal. “The Obama administration more often than ever censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act,” the Associated Press reported last March.
Tom Coburn, the GOP ranking member on the Senate Government Reform Committee, is retiring later this year after a decade of championing openness in government. He is worried about the precedent the Obama administration has established: “This is an extremely dangerous place to be for a government established to be of the people, by the people, for the people.”
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.