The ongoing dispute over whether inspectors general need full access to all agency documents took a new turn on Wednesday after the Justice Department wrote to lawmakers proposing a narrow change in current law that would preserve some agencies’ powers to withhold specified documents relating to national security, grand jury testimony and credit reporting.
Congress has been holding hearings and moving a bill to strengthen watchdog powers in the wake of controversies at agencies such as the FBI where managers declined to turn over documents they deemed confidential under other statutes—a stance backed by Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel.
On Tuesday, legislative staff at Justice wrote to Congress proposing language that would amend the 1978 Inspector General Act to better align with the July Office of Legal Counsel opinion but granting only Justice’s own IG the document access that all the IGs had been seeking.
Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general who also currently chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, was not pleased, saying, “It remains our office’s view that the Inspector General Act should be changed to ensure independent access to information for all relevant inspectors general.”
On Wednesday, several IGs on behalf of the council wrote to various congressional committee leaders saying that, “While the DOJ agrees with CIGIE that legislation is needed and should be passed by Congress to reverse the impact of the OLC opinion, the DOJ's proposal only applies to the DOJ Inspector General's access to records and fails to ensure that all other federal inspectors general have the same independent access at their respective agencies. As such, DOJ's proposed legislative language is not acceptable.”
The IGs continued: “Effective and independent oversight is the mission of inspectors general and, therefore, all inspectors general require timely and independent access to agency information necessary to carry out that responsibility. This is a bedrock principle of the IG Act.”