Justice Department Returns Another Volley in Battle Over IG Access to Documents

For more than a year, the inspectors general community has been calling for heightened access to agency documents that are sometimes withheld from them during investigations for reasons involving privacy and national security.

But the Justice Department sees the issue differently, and on Wednesday took to the letters column of The New York Times to make its case.

The Times editorial board had published an editorial March 9 titled “Let Inspectors General Do Their Job,” arguing that “it is no surprise that government officials don’t want their wrongdoing or incompetence made public. Inspectors general are on the front lines of ensuring the transparency needed if government is to be held accountable. They should have unfettered access to the materials they need to do their job.”

It’s not so simple, wrote Peter Kadzik, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs. He defended a Justice Office of Legal Counsel paper released last July that lays out a few exceptions to a general practice and proposed legislation that allow the Justice IG fast access.

“We strongly object to how the editorial characterized both current law and the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion on inspector general access,” Kadzik wrote. “Contrary to the editorial’s suggestion, the Office of Legal Counsel’s opinion did not 'defend' an “obstructive” action or policy. It provided a reasoned legal analysis of the department’s obligations to guard information lawfully obtained from wiretapped phone conversations, grand jury investigations and private credit reports.”

Michael Horowitz, the Justice watchdog who also chairs the 72-member Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, has argued that the department’s requirements for his office to seek formal permission to read certain documents threatens the IG core value of independence from its own agency’s management.

Both houses of Congress are considering bills to expand IG access and strengthen their powers.

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