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.


Part one of a two-part series

By William Fisher

For the past few years, Americans have lived with an increasingly secret government. More official documents are being classified than ever before -- more than 16 million last year alone – while the declassification process, which made millions of historical documents available annually in the 1990s, has slowed to a relative crawl. And Federal agencies are creating new categories of “semi-secrets”, bearing vague labels like "sensitive security information."

This increasing secrecy, which accelerated sharply after attacks of September 11th 2001, is estimated to cost taxpayers more than $8 billion annually and is drawing protests from a growing array of politicians and activists, including Republican members of Congress, leaders of the independent commission that studied the Sept. 11 attacks and even the top federal official who oversees classification.

Meanwhile, requests for these documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are at an all-time high, and the government is taking ever-longer to respond – or claiming exemptions on grounds of national security and not responding at all. The FOIA law was enacted in 1968 to provide greater access to government documents.

Yet even in this opaque environment, the U.S. Government is still far more transparent than most. And much of the credit goes to two Federal agencies – the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Inspectors General (IGs), who operate in virtually all major government departments.

According to Steven Aftergood, who heads the Project on Government Secrecy government secrecy project for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), “Both organizations often have a direct impact on particular policies and programs, and play a vital role in nourishing public awareness.”

Aftergood is part of a smallish group of non-governmental agencies that watch the watchdogs. He said, “Both sets of organizations routinely ‘make news’ and help to inform public debate.”

In this, the first of two articles, we report on the GAO.

Created by Congress in 1921, GAO is independent of the executive branch of government. According to Jeff Ruch, who heads another of the “watchdog watcher” organizations, the Project on Government Oversight, “On a monthly basis, GAO uncovers more problems within executive agencies than all the IGs combined do in a year.”

He said, “While GAO is a creature of Congress, that oversight goes to what it examines and the size of its budget. We have never heard of a draft GAO report watered down by Congressional intervention.”

With a staff of 3,200 and an annual budget of $463.6 million, the GAO is headed by the Comptroller General of the United States (CG), currently David M. Walker, who came to the job with extensive government and private sector experience.

In an effort to de-politicize its operations and ensure continuity, the CG is appointed by the President for a term of ten years; the current CG was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

GAO’s mission is to help improve the performance and assure the accountability of the federal government. Last year it testified 217 times before Congress, and over the past four years has made 2,700 recommendations for improving government operations – 83 per cent of which have been implemented. It claims its work in 2004 saved taxpayers $44 billion

Because of its size and huge budget, the Defense Department has been a frequent target of GOA criticism. This year, it charged that thePentagon was spending over $13 billion to maintain and buy often duplicative business software and computer systems. In another report, it said that over the last three years, the Pentagon disposed of $33 billion in ‘excess’ equipment – for pennies on the dollar. Some $4 billion of this equipment was reported to be in new, unused, or excellent condition. In yet another report, the GAO blasted the Pentagon for its "atrocious financial management," saying the Defense Department was not able to give federal oversight officials a full accounting of the $1 billion being spent each week on the war in Iraq.

"If the Department of Defense were a business, they'd be out of business," said GAO boss Walker. "They have absolutely atrocious financial management."

GAO also reported that the Environmental Protection Agency is failing to protect the public from tens of thousands of toxic compounds because it has not gathered data on the health risks of most industrial chemicals

It criticized the Office of Management and Budget for weaknesses in its security reporting guidance and reported deficiencies in the information security policies and practices at 24 of the largest federal agencies. -- putting financial data at risk of unauthorized modification or destruction, and putting sensitive information at risk of inappropriate disclosure.

GAO found that inaccurate reporting by the Department of Energy (DOE) was covering up the agency’s failure ensure that 50% of subcontracts went to small businesses.

It charged that “plenty” of the 8.8. million passports issued by the State Department in 2004 went to killers, rapists, drug dealers and even terrorists because the FBI did not routinely share with the State Department its list of fugitives wanted by state and federal agencies. Among those who fell through the intelligence cracks were nine murder suspects, five sex offenders, three drug dealers and one alleged bombing suspect. One of the fugitives on the list managed to obtain a U.S. passport less than a year and a half after being on the FBI's 10 most-wanted list.

But the GAO’s work does not always produce success stories. In 2001, it demanded to see the minutes of an Energy Task Force headed be Vice President Disk Cheney – following allegations that the group was “packed” with energy industry executives. For the first time since the GAO’s founding, it filed a lawsuit against Cheney to enforce its right of access to records. After several years, the Supreme Court ruled the minutes were privileged.

Steven Aftergood of FAS injects a further cautionary note. He resists “idealizing the IGs or the GAO as ‘truth tellers’. What they represent, instead, are old-fashioned checks and balances. They are government organizations and officials with a degree of independence and a charter to investigate. If this seems heroic, then that tells something about the times we live in,” he said.


By William Fisher

As the U.S. faces increasingly negative attitudes around the world, the previously arcane subject of public diplomacy has become a serious issue in the Bush Administration, Congress, universities, think-tanks and with ordinary citizens.

“Why do they hate us?” is being asked in more places and by more kinds of Americans than ever before.

As widely reported, repeated polls by reputable opinion organizations such as the Pew Research Center and Zogby International have shown that negative overseas perceptions of the U.S. are largely a product of American policies, especially its policies in the Arab and Muslim world.

Particularly incendiary among Arabs and other Muslims are the invasion of Iraq, the alleged U.S. abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and what many foreigners see as America’s one-sided support of Israel.

The importance the Bush Administration places on finding new ways to counter these negative perceptions has been underlined by the President’s nomination of his close confidante and advisor, Karen Hughes, to be Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and former White House personnel chief, Egypt-born Dina Habib Powell to be her deputy.

But neither of these high-profile individuals have had any formal training in crafting and communicating messages that will resonate with foreign audiences who represent widely varying cultural, social, political and economic backgrounds.

That should not come as a surprise: most of the people who actually work in the public diplomacy field today have learned their craft largely from on-the-job experience. They are diplomats, educators, foreign policy experts, political scientists, and men and women who have made their fortunes in journalism or commercial broadcasting, and have sought to adapt these backgrounds to the complex task of winning friends for America.

Until now.

Next month, the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles will begin teaching courses in a new program that will offer a Master’s Degree in Public Diplomacy -- the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

The two-year program will be offered jointly by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences' School of International Relations. The degree program will officially launch in fall 2006.

Just appointed to head the new program is one of the best-known names in the public diplomacy field -- Professor Nicholas J. Cull. Cull is Director of the Centre for American Studies at Leicester University in the United Kingdom. He specializes in US foreign policy, the history of propaganda and the politics of popular culture, and is the author of numerous books on the subject.

His first book, “Selling War”, was a study of British information work in the United States before Pearl Harbor. Since then he has published numerous articles on the theme of propaganda, public diplomacy, politics and foreign policy. He is also an active film historian who has been part of the movement to include film and other media within the mainstream of historical sources.

While the new program’s curriculum will be global, media attention predictably focuses on U.S. efforts to ‘win hearts and minds’ among Arabs and other Muslims, especially in the Middle East.

Prof. Cull addressed Middle East issues in an interview. "There is a problem underpinning all U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East and that is the extent to which Arabs actually understand the U.S. rather well and have reasons for disliking American actions based on U.S. policy. A good public diplomacy response would be to show more of the debate within the U.S. so the Arab world understands there are plenty of people of disapprove of much of American-Israeli policy, and conversely that there are reasons why the U.S. behaves the way that it does."

In the Middle East, he said, "We are dealing with a different culture and cannot assume that a message will be received with the intent with which it was transmitted. What hope is there for Bush to say 'sorry' to the Arab world when he doesn't seem to understand that no Arab takes an apology seriously unless the person apologizing adds 'and I ask you to forgive me'."

The Master’s Program was conceived by USC Annenberg Dean Geoffrey Cowan, who served as director of the Voice of America radio service during the
1990s, and USC College Dean Joseph Aoun.

"In an increasingly democratic world, leaders of this nation - as well as the leaders of other countries, businesses and non-governmental organizations - know that they need to find more effective forms of communication," Cowan said.

"There is a pressing need for a cadre of well-trained graduates who will understand diverse cultures, new forms of communication technology and a wide range of communication tools, ranging from cultural diplomacy to exchange programs, to international broadcasting."

"We expect this program to attract and train students and mid-career
professionals who will become the leaders of the next generation of public diplomacy professionals," he added.

Traditional definitions of public diplomacy include: government-sponsored cultural, educational and informational programs; and citizen-exchange programs and broadcasts such as the BBC World Service that are used by governments to promote the national interests of a country through understanding, informing and
influencing foreign audiences.

The new program will use these definitions as starting points, but will address new ways – such as blogs, independent news organizations like Al Jazeera and non-governmental organizations -- to influence and shape the worldview of citizens of foreign countries.

The curriculum will include graduate-level classes on topics such as international broadcasting, cultural diplomacy, corporate citizenship and images, and historical approaches to public diplomacy.

The program is designed for students who already have a substantial undergraduate background in social sciences or relevant professional experience in subjects such as communication, public relations, media studies, journalism,
political science and international relations.

In addition to the new degree program, USC is home to the new Center on Public Diplomacy, which has arranged for internships at such institutions as the Sesame Workshop, the European Union, a number of major consulates in Los Angeles and several leading U.S. foreign policy agencies in Washington, D.C.

"The work of the USC Center for Public Diplomacy will enrich research opportunities for students in the degree program," Joshua Fouts, the center's executive director, said,” This degree is the first step in creating substantive dialogue among students, scholars and practitioners at a critical period in global and political communication.”

For far too long, public diplomacy has been largely an afterthought, an add-on to other international programs. It has rarely, if ever, been fully integrated into foreign policy, either in the US or anywhere else. Nor have governments appreciated the long-term nature of building sound two-way communications or the importance of people of other nations understanding – if even not liking – its policies and practices.

The 21st century is different, however. Today, we are all inter-connected and there is virtually nothing important a nation can do by itself. That is why nations must understand one another. And that is the goal of public diplomacy.

It’s long past time to put the amateurs out to pasture and train a pool of professionals. That is why the USC initiative is so important.