IGs Aren’t Taking Justice Department Rejection Lying Down

Battle for full, independent access to agency documents moves to Capitol Hill.

Inspectors general collectively lost a battle last month when the Justice Department issued a long-awaited decision giving itself the discretion over release of documents involving national security wiretaps, grand jury testimony and individual credit reports.

Now the inspectors general council and the Senate Judiciary Committee are calling in reinforcements and revving up a challenge to the decision by pushing existing legislation to strengthen the watchdogs’ authority to gain access to documents that critics say agency managers sometimes slow-walk.

In an Aug. 3 letter to governmental affairs committee leaders in both the House and Senate, four top leaders of the 72-member Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, led by chairman Michael Horowitz, who by day is IG at the Justice Department, blasted Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel’s argument backing the FBI’s view that it needs to retain control over certain confidential documents.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates 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,” the IGs noted. “Requiring an inspector general to obtain permission from agency staff in order to access agency information turns the principle of independent oversight that is enshrined in the IG Act on its head.”

Other IGs backed the council, among them Homeland Security Department watchdog John Roth, who issued a statement, saying “For an IG, independence is the coin of the realm. Unfortunately, the OLC opinion undermines IG independence and creates the conflict of putting the agency that is being overseen in the position of deciding whether the IG will have access to records needed to conduct oversight. This inherent conflict is not what Congress intended,” Roth said. “While the DHS OIG has not had the systemic access issues that are faced by the DOJ OIG and other colleagues in the IG community, we will support legislative efforts ensuring that all OIGs will have independent access to all records.”

Organizers also recruited former Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, co-author of the 1978 Inspector General Act and 1988 amendments, who wrote a letter released Monday by the Judiciary Committee arguing that “broad independent access to such records is a fundamental tenet in the IG Act and to compromise or in any way erode such access would strike at the heart of important law.”

Judiciary Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday with the non-neutral title ‘All’ Means ‘All’: The Justice Department’s Failure to Comply with Its Legal Obligation to Ensure Inspector General Access to All Records Needed for Independent Oversight.”

Witnesses will include Horowitz, Associate FBI Deputy Director Kevin Perkins, Associate Deputy Attorney General Carlos Uriarte, and David Smith, acting IG at the Commerce Department. A second panel will include Paul Light, a longtime student of IGs who is professor of public service at New York University; retired General Services Administration IG Brian Miller, and Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which has long tracked issues surrounding the powers of inspectors general.

(Image via Elnur/Shutterstock.com)