Friday, July 22, 2005



By William Fisher

It’s not much of a stretch to argue that the toughest – and perhaps the most thankless – job in the U.S. Government is carried out by a group of people very few Americans have ever heard of.

These are the Inspectors General (IGs) of all Cabinet-level government departments – and in many smaller departments and agencies. The IGs, along with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) – reported by IPS previously -- constitute the government’s two principal watchdog agencies.

The IGs have been around since the founding of the U.S., having been established by the Continental Congress in 1777, to ensure good behavior by the army.

But their work is far more complex and challenging today. What makes the work so difficult?

IGs are appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate, but serve at the president’s pleasure – meaning they can be fired at any time for any reason, or no reason at all. Their job is to investigate waste, fraud and malfeasance in the very departments they work in. Often, the subject matter of their investigations is classified, and the production of a declassified version can lead to long delays in public release. In some cases, material contained in an IG report has been classified after the report was written, in order to keep its conclusions and recommendations away from public scrutiny. On some occasions, IGs have refused to take on highly sensitive or controversial subjects, or have taken on only small and less controversial parts of a larger subject – in effect, ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the living room.

Steven Aftergood, head of the Government Secrecy Project of the Federation of American Scientists spends a good deal of his work life ‘watching the watchdogs’.

His assessment: “Like every other system of checks and balances, the Inspectors General are imperfect -- yet indispensable. I think that the overall performance of the IG depends to a very large extent on the individual who holds the position. A bold and persistent IG can have a tremendous impact,” he said, adding, “A lazy, indifferent or corrupt IG may be worse than none at all.”

That potential for ‘tremendous impact’ often translates into extensive media attention and changes in the way government agencies carry out their work. For example:

Late last year, the chief internal watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), reported that the federal government still could not keep foreigners from using stolen passports to enter the country. He found the federal air marshal program in disarray, warned that shipping containers were entering U.S. ports every day without even superficial screening for nuclear material, and chastised the department for failing to fulfill its congressional mandate to come up with a centralized watch list of suspected terrorists. Even Homeland Security’s single most publicized initiative, the screening of passengers and bags at the nation’s airports, had failed to make it any more difficult to sneak guns, knives, and explosives onto planes, the IG report found. The IG, Clark Kent Ervin, was fired two weeks later.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) used federal immigration laws to detain aliens in the United States. The IG found significant problems in the way the Department handled these detainees. The IG report concluded that the FBI should have made a greater effort to distinguish illegal aliens the agency suspected of having a connection to terrorism from those who may have violated immigration laws unrelated to terrorism. The department operated under a "hold until cleared" policy, which required detainees to be held without bond until the FBI cleared them of any connections to terrorism. According to the report, the average length of time from the arrest of a detainee to clearance by the FBI was 80 days. Many detainees were held in prison-like environments, without access to lawyers or families.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA), IG found that EPA “senior management,” (meaning political appointees) had rigged data and failed to meet its legal responsibility to protect children’s health. The immediate issue was mercury emissions from coal-fired electric utilities. The IG’s evaluation found that because the assumptions imposed on the analysis were incorrect, the allowable level of mercury pollution proposed by EPA did not meet the minimum standard required by the Clean Air Act.

The U.S. Defense Department's (DOD) weapons buying chief and senior Air Force officials sidestepped regulations in a $23 billion proposal to lease and buy as many as 100 Boeing Co. tankers, the Pentagon's IG said. His report is the Pentagon's fullest so far on the failed Boeing deal, shelved last year after questions about cost and criminal conflicts of interest. The decision by the Pentagon's former undersecretary for acquisition to exempt the Boeing tanker program from specific regulations ``was the major failure associated with managing and making decisions on the program,'' said the IG report. A senior civilian Pentagon procurement official and two Boeing executives were convicted and are now serving prison sentences.

Sibel Edmonds, an FBI linguist was fired in 2002 after raising security-related allegations about a co-worker. The IG report concluded that the FBI did not, and still has not, adequately investigated these allegations. Had the FBI investigated the claims thoroughly, it would have found that many of Edmonds’ allegations regarding the co-worker were supported by documentary evidence or other witnesses. Instead, the FBI seems to have discounted Edmonds’ allegations, believing she was a disruptive influence and not credible, and eventually terminated her services. The IG report noted that Edmonds also alleged that the FBI retaliated against her by terminating her services. The IG concluded that Edmonds’ allegations were at least a contributing factor in why the FBI terminated her services. Edmonds sought protection under the Whistleblowers’ Act, and sued the government. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that her case could not go forward because much of the evidence was classified.

Jeff Ruch, who heads the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) – a not-for-profit “watch the watchdogs” organization -- believes the IG system has numerous flaws.

He said, “Many intakes to IGs are ignored; an IG can take as long as it wants, holding reports until they are irrelevant or moot; IGs can reframe the question or pull punches in ways that is hard to detect unless the gist of the original intake is known (but they are not often on any public record).”

He offers these recommendations to improve the IG system:

Give IGs a fixed term, removable only for cause -- rather than serving at the president’s pleasure.

Require IGs to report back to agency employee whistleblower/intakes within a certain time. Give whistleblowers some official status to review and comment on adequacy of an IG report and include those comments in the final published version. Put teeth in whistleblower protection.

Impose a penalty for IG staff who disclose confidential informant identity.

Give IGs a mechanism to pursue officials they believe are guilty of misconduct.