- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Neither officials from the FBI nor the Office of the Deputy Attorney General could identify any circumstance in which sensitive information disclosed to inspectors general was inappropriately released to the public — leading senators on Wednesday to question why they wanted to make it harder for internal watchdogs to access it.

The admission by top agency officials came during a hearing on the authority of federal inspectors general following the release of a legal opinion that requires the watchdogs to get permission from agencies they monitor for wiretaps and other investigative information.

“What’s the issue? If the inspector general has to protect sensitive information as well, what would be wrong with just providing the inspector general full access?” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican with oversight of the Judiciary Committee, which held the hearing.

The dust-up over limitations to the type of access to information that federal watchdogs would obtain came as a result of a legal opinion issued July 20 by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. The office 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.

Under that interpretation, watchdogs warned their ability to root out waste, fraud and abuse within federal agencies could be limited by agencies curtailing the information they receive.

Even before the opinion was issued, the Inspector General for the Justice Department said his office saw a change in what information the FBI was willing to share in 2010.

“We have had access to very significant information,” said DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, listing off investigations of the 9/11 attacks, president’s surveillance program and Patriot Act reviews. “I can go on and on about the kind of work we’ve done, oversight we’ve conducted before 2010 without anyone objecting to our access to that material based on any legal reason.”

But in 2010, Mr. Horowitz said the FBI lawyers came up with a list of categories — including grand jury, wiretap and credit information — that his office “should not have access to.” Since then the turnaround time for information requests has sped up, but Mr. Horowitz said his office receives redacted documents.

Justice Department officials have said they are not aware of any instance in which the department has outright denied a request by the inspector general for information.

FBI Associate Deputy Director Kevin L. Perkins said the disclosure process has evolved over time but said changes were made in 2010 as the scope of investigations started to raise questions within the agency.

“We went forward with more and more investigations, and more and more document requests and questions were raised by our own general counsel’s office [such as] ‘Are we in compliance with the law?’” Mr. Perkins said. “Their review of that raised concerns.”

To illustrate that the FBI is working with the inspector general’s office, Mr. Perkins rattled off a list of data handed over to investigators during the last year.

“The FBI has provided nearly 400,000 pages of documents and 136,000 emails to the OIG,” Mr. Perkins said. “During this same time, the OIG initiated 20 new audits and over 30 investigations directed at the FBI. To fulfill the OIG’s requests, the FBI has dedicated almost a dozen individuals to these tasks.”

When pressed by Mr. Grassley as to whether sensitive information had ever been improperly released by the inspector general, neither Mr. Perkins or Carlos Uriarte, an associate deputy attorney general, could think of an instance.

“Without exception, we have handled this information properly, in accordance with all legal requirements and restrictions, and with appropriate security measures,” Mr. Horowitz said.

Despite the difference of opinion, agency officials said they are currently working together to come up with language for a legislative fix to ensure that inspectors general do have access to all records requested.

“The deputy attorney general is committed to working with the IG and members of Congress on legislation that enables the department to comply with the law while ensuring that the IG receives all the documents it needs to complete its review as quickly as possible,” Mr. Uriarte said.

Congressional action is necessary in order to preserve the authority of federal inspectors general, said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.

“The very purpose of having an independent IG is undermined if the office has to seek the agency’s permission in order to carry out its mission,” she said.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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