Inspectors General Lose Bid to Expand Access to Agency Documents

Justice IG Michael Horowitz strongly disagrees with the opinion. Justice IG Michael Horowitz strongly disagrees with the opinion. J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

In a long-awaited opinion, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel on Thursday issued a memo to Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates denying requests by the agency’s inspector general for greater auditor access to documents the department protects in matters involving grand jury testimony, national security wiretaps and credit information.

The memo dated July 20 interpreted statutes to “forbid disclosures that have either an attenuated or no connection with the conduct of the department’s criminal law enforcement programs or operations,” adding that the Fair Credit Reporting Act “forbids disclosures that have either an attenuated or no connection with the approval or conduct of foreign counterintelligence investigations.”

That position backs the FBI, which has argued that it cannot share information with inspectors general from National Security Letters it uses in terrorism and leak investigations.

It disappointed Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who, both in his day job and in his role as chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, has argued that access to such documents is key to his office’s independence.

“I strongly disagree with the OLC opinion,” Horowitz said Thursday in a statement arguing the ruling violates the 1978 Inspector General Act. “Congress meant what it said when it authorized inspectors general to independently access ‘all’ documents necessary to conduct effective oversight.  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. We look forward to working with the Congress and the Justice Department to promptly remedy this serious situation.”

If it stands, the memo means that the inspector general will have to seek special Justice Department permission each time it wishes to access documents.

The Justice memo noted that it is deciding the question as a matter of law, but that the applicable policy has not been determined.

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