The Obama administration has made it increasingly difficult for Congress and inspectors general to uncover government misdeeds and access information in various agencies, according to recent congressional testimony and reports.
On Thursday, Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz testified before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing that Attorney General Eric Holder stonewalled his investigation of the “Operation Fast and Furious” gunwalking scandal.
Mr. Horowitz also said his office has been stymied in other investigations of the Justice Department because of the Obama administration’s interpretation of access laws, which essentially requires investigators to ask department heads for permission to investigate them.
“For a review to be truly independent, an inspector general should not be required to obtain permission or authorization of the leadership of the agency in order to gain access to certain agency records, and the determination about what records are relevant and necessary to a review should be made by the inspector general and not by the component head or agency leadership,” he told the Senate subcommittee. “Such complete access to information is a cornerstone of effective independent oversight.”
In “Fast and Furious,” the Arizona field office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives (ATF) allowed licensed gun dealers to sell illegal weapons in hopes of tracking the arms into Mexico as part of a sting operation. Of the nearly 2,000 illegal guns that were sold between 2006 and 2011, only 700 or so were recovered, and many of the arms are believed to have ended up with drug cartels.
Mr. Horowitz said the independence and timeliness of his probe of scandal were strained because investigators had to ask senior officials for permission to obtain grand jury testimony and wiretap information.
Similar complaints have been lodged by watchdogs in other agencies, he said, noting a grievance by the Peace Corps’ inspector general, who was trying to investigate a sexual attack on Peace Corps member overseas and was blocked by the bureaucrats in her agency. The matter is still under investigation.
“We need to make sure that inspector generals have unfettered access to documents that could root out wrongdoing in any department,” said Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
In his testimony to the subcommittee, Mr. Holder denied any wrongdoing and said he sees no conflict of interest in requiring investigators to seek permission from the people they are investigating, saying it is a matter of oversight.
“There is no tension between making sure the inspector general has the documents that he or she needs and also of making sure that the laws that govern the release of those materials is followed — and we have done so,” Mr. Holder said.
Meanwhile, a report released Wednesday by Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, found the Obama administration is forcing employees to sign written pledges of secrecy, known as nondisclosure agreements, without including whistleblower exceptions mandated by law.
According to a statement released by Mr. Grassley’s office, the nondisclosure agreements restrict the flow of information about waste, fraud and abuse to proper authorities outside the agencies, including Congress.
The Grassley report found that only the Treasury Department had implemented the whistleblower exceptions. Eight departments partially implemented the exceptions, and two others were unable to demonstrate even partial compliance with the whistleblower law. Four departments, including Justice, did not respond to Mr. Grassley’s inquiry.
“Federal employees have rights and obligations to report wrongdoing to Congress or Inspectors General. And, even though federal law protects their right to do so, employees are led to believe that they have signed away their rights to speak outside the chain of command. As a result, employees witnessing wrongdoing often remain silent,” Mr. Grassley said in a statement. “The taxpaying public has a right to know about the government’s dirty laundry.”