Politics & Policy

The Silencing of the Inspectors General

President Barack Obama in 2016 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Impartial watchdogs are useless if the government stonewalls them and ignores their findings of wrongdoing.

Department of Justice inspector general Michael Horowitz, an Obama administration appointee, is scheduled to deliver a report this week on DOJ and FBI abuses during the 2016 campaign cycle. Remember: His last investigation of FBI misconduct advised a criminal referral for fired former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe, who allegedly lied to federal investigators.

McCabe and at least a half-dozen other FBI employees quit, retired, were fired, or were reassigned as a result of fallout from the politicization of the FBI. Yet, as Barack Obama left office, his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, strangely boasted that the Obama administration “has been historically free of scandal.” Obama himself recently concluded of his eight-year tenure, “I didn’t have scandals.”

Those were puzzling assertions, given nearly nonstop scandals during Obama’s eight years in office involving the IRS; General Services Administration; Peace Corps; Secret Service; Veterans Administration; and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, not to mention the Clinton email-server scandal, the Benghazi scandal, and the 2016 Democratic National Committee email scandal.

For nearly eight years, the Obama administration sought to cover up serial wrongdoing by waging a veritable war against the watchdog inspectors general of various federal agencies.

In 2014, 47 of the nation’s 73 inspectors general signed a letter alleging that Obama had stonewalled their “ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner.”

The frustrated nonpartisan auditors cited systematic Obama-administration refusals to turn over incriminating documents that were central to their investigations.

The administration had purportedly tried to sidetrack an IG investigation into possible misconduct by then–Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. In addition, the Obama administration reportedly thwarted IG investigations of Amtrak, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and the Office of Management and Budget.

Despite the campaign against these independent federal auditors, a number of inspectors general still managed to issue damning indictments of unethical behavior.

In 2012, Horowitz recommended that 14 Justice Department and ATF officials be disciplined for their conduct in the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking scandal.

A 2013 IG audit found that the IRS had targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny prior to the 2012 Obama reelection effort.

In 2014, an internal audit revealed that CIA officials had hacked the Senate Intelligence Committee’s computers while compiling a report on enhanced interrogation techniques. CIA director John Brennan had claimed that his agents were not improperly monitoring Senate staff computer files. He was forced to retract his denials and apologize for his prevarication.

In 2016, the State Department’s inspector general found that Hillary Clinton had never sought approval for her reckless and illegal use of an unsecured private email server. The IG also found that other Clinton aides silenced staffers who were worried about national security being compromised by the unsecured server.

Still, Obama was right in a way: A scandal does not become a scandal if no one acts on findings of improper behavior.

Under former attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, the findings of dozens of IGs were snubbed. That raises the question: What good are inspectors general if a president ignores any illegality and impropriety that they have uncovered?

Answer: not much good at all — unless an incoming administration is of a different political party than the outgoing administration. Once that happens in our politicized system, there is a rare interest in not covering up or ignoring a damning IG report, but in acting on it.

We may now be experiencing one of those unusual occasions.

Soon, various inspector-general reports may appear concerning FISA-court abuse and improper behavior at the Department of Justice, FBI, CIA, and National Security Council during the 2016 campaign cycle. The investigators are, for the most part, Obama appointees, not Trump appointees.

At some point, the idea of toothless inspectors general needs to be revisited. Something is terribly wrong when dozens of IGs found wrongdoing, only to object that their efforts were being thwarted by an Obama administration that had appointed most of them — and claimed to be scandal-free.

Finding government abuse and doing nothing about it is worse than not finding any at all.

© 2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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