- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A group of inspectors general say a recent ruling by the Obama administration requiring federal watchdogs to get permission from agencies they monitor for wiretaps and other investigative information is a “serious threat” to their independence and that Congress should pass legislation affirming their oversight authority.

The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which represents 72 federal inspectors general, sent a letter outlining the concerns to Congress members ahead of a Senate hearing Wednesday on the issue.

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary is convening the hearing to dig into the Department of Justice’s practices, which lawmakers have said undermine the ability of inspectors general to root out corruption and fraud within the agencies they police.

In an opinion issued July 20, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel determined that the Inspector General Act of 1978 — which was written by Congress to create the government watchdogs in order to help maintain integrity within their agencies — does not give inspectors general the authority to override nondisclosure provisions in other laws, most notably in regard to grand jury, wiretap or fair credit information.

The inspectors general group says the opinion “presents a potentially serious challenge to the authority of every Inspector General and our collective ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner.”

Also urging Congress to adopt further protections preserving the oversight authority of the federal watchdogs ahead of the Wednesday hearing is one of the chief architects of the 1978 act, retired Democratic Sen. John Glenn.

“Full and unfettered access is vital to an IG’s ability to effectively prevent and detect fraud, waste, and abuse in agency programs and activities,” Mr. Glenn wrote in a letter to federal lawmakers that was made public Tuesday.

“The Inspector General Act has stood the test of time,” Mr. Glenn wrote. “The billions of dollars recovered for the government and the increased efficiency and effectiveness of government programs and operations are a testament to the Act’s continued success. Any action that would impair the IG’s ability to achieve their mission — particularly the denial of full and independent access to agency records and information — would have an immeasurable adverse impact and severely damage their critical oversight function.”

Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, said his office has had to seek former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s permission, and now Loretta E. Lynch’s, to gain access to investigative materials. The approval process is blamed for a delayed review of Operation Fast and Furious — the failed Mexican drug cartel sting that lost track of more than 1,000 government-issued guns, one of which later was used to kill a U.S. Border Patrol agent — as well as other reports the inspector general is set to publish.

At no point has the Justice Department denied any of Mr. Horowitz’s requests, but some in Congress have argued that requiring the inspector general to ask the attorney general for materials represents a direct conflict of interest and impairs the inspector general’s independence.

“Under the law, an inspector general must be independent, because agencies cannot be trusted to investigate themselves,” Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the judiciary committee, says in a statement prepared for the hearing. “If IGs have to ask for permission from senior leadership, they would not be truly independent.”

Following the issuance of the opinion, the DOJ’s Office of the Deputy Attorney General sent a memo to department heads outlining procedures for document requests from the inspector general’s office calling such requests “of the highest priority.” In the July 27 memo, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates noted several scenarios under which officials within the department could share information directly with the inspector general without first consulting with her office.

“Any assessment whether an OIG investigation or review qualifies for disclosure shall be conducted in cooperation with OIG,” she wrote.

Justice Department officials have said previously that inspectors general should have access to all information they need and that procedures are in place to pass along sensitive law enforcement information in a timely manner.

“The department is committed to working with Congress and the inspector general on legislation to address any gaps in the law that may hamper the inspector general’s ability to access such information in a timely manner,” DOJ spokeswoman Emily Pierce said.

Officials expected to testify at Wednesday’s 10 a.m. hearing include Mr. Horowitz, FBI Associate Deputy Director Kevin L. Perkins, DOJ Associate Deputy Attorney General Carlos Uriarte and Department of Commerce Acting Inspector General David Smith.

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