In a challenge to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, a bipartisan group of a dozen senators introduced legislative language to widen inspectors general access to agency documents that under current policy are protected due to privacy concerns.
Inspectors general for years have complained that agencies—among them the FBI—have blocked their investigators from reviewing certain documents viewed as shielded by national security precautions and the Fair Credit Reporting Act. When the Office of Legal Counsel in July reiterated its view that agency leaders may invoke exceptions, senators in August responded in a letter and began discussions with multiple Senate panel chairs and agency officials.
The resulting language would amend S. 579, the Inspector General Empowerment Act, to counter the July Justice Department opinion. Its authors argue that the 1978 Inspector General Act authorizes each watchdog to access “all records” in their agency’s possession in the conduct of an oversight investigation or audit. The Office of Legal Counsel reached its conclusion on exceptions “despite clear and recent language enacted in response to the controversy over these very access issues,” the senators said in a statement. “The Department of Justice’s fiscal year 2015 Appropriations Act prohibited the agency from denying the inspector general timely access to records.” The only exception was for any “express” limitation in the Inspector General Act, they said.
Led by Homeland Security panel Chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa., the group that introduced the new language included Homeland Security ranking member Tom Carper, D-Del.; and Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Joni Ernst, R-Iowa; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; John Cornyn, R-Texas; James Lankford, R-Okla.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Mark Kirk, R-Ill.; and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
“I am pleased that a bipartisan group of senators came together to make clear once again that inspectors general must have unfettered access to all agency documents,” Johnson said.
Added Grassley, “The Justice Department opinion is contrary to the law and to the reason Congress created inspectors general – an independent overseer of the executive branch. We couldn’t have been more clear last year to ensure inspectors general received access to all documents, but the law seems to have been ignored. The action we’re taking with this new legislation leaves no room for misinterpretation.”
That larger bill, which cleared the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in May, would also toughen IG subpoena power. A House version cleared the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in July.