Federal Watchdogs Under Fire

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

General Michael Hayden, director of the CIA.

Correction Appended: April 3, 2008

The U.S. government's unique system of Inspectors General — an elite but underappreciated slice of the federal civil service — is arguably the best-spent taxpayer money in Washington. At their best, these quasi-independent ombudsmen save the country billions, many multiples of what it costs to employ close to 12,000 staff in 64 IG offices, while doing their best to ensure the efficient and impartial functioning of their respective agencies.

But with such lofty mandates — and powerful offices — their failures can be equally crucial, helping to shield the worst excesses of powerful government bureaucracies. And almost 30 years since its landmark creation, many critics say the IG system has never been in more dire need of reform as it is under the Bush Administration. An unusually high number of Bush IGs, such as Janet Rehnquist at Health and Human Services, have been forced to resign under a cloud as a result of bipartisan pressure, often because of bald incompetence or gross interference with the IG mission. At the same time, a number of good IGs have felt undermined or even been forced out by their political superiors after uncovering major problems; Clark Kent Irvin, for one, encountered resistance from Tom Ridge at Homeland Security after highlighting porous weapons detection at airports, the lack of consolidated terrorist lists, and pre-Katrina inadequacies at FEMA. More than 60% of IGs appointed by Bush had prior political experience — either at the White House or as Republican congressional staff — while fewer than 20% had prior audit experience, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported in 2005. During the Clinton years, by contrast, more than 60% of IGs appointees had a relevant oversight background.

"Over the past seven years they [the Bush Administration] have systematically worked to undermine IG authority and chill audit and investigatory range," says Paul C. Light, a recognized IG authority who teaches about public service at New York University. "This has been a sustained effort and it has taken its toll... so I would say they are the worst; they would make the Reagan Administration proud."

The latest, and perhaps the most egregious, IG abuse to come to light has been at the State Department, where IG Howard Krongard is alleged to have repeatedly thwarted investigations into contracting fraud in the $3.6 billion spending that State has overseen in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the new U.S. embassy, which is racked with problems. In the process, according to seven former and current staffers, he is alleged to have censored politically embarrassing reporting, which many argue has helped obscure the corrosive effect of widespread corruption in Iraq. "One consistent element in these allegations is that you believe your foremost mission is to support the Bush Administration, especially with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than act as an independent and objective check on waste, fraud and abuse on behalf of U.S. taxpayers," said Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has an ongoing investigation. In response, Krongard issued a statement, claiming, "The allegations, as described to me and in certain media reports, are replete with inaccuracies including those made by persons with their own agendas."

A more recent flashpoint is at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where agency director General Michael Hayden has launched an investigation of his agency's own IG office, headed by John Helgerson. The move is unprecedented and provoked criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for jeopardizing the independence of the IG — by intimidating any staff that might want to report misgivings — and interfering with its oversight function. In a letter urging Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, to order Hayden to cease his inquiry, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and member of the Select Intelligence Committee, said that the CIA's IG was "possibly the most important" of all the IGs because the secretive nature of the CIA's work allowed only limited public accountability. The internal inquiry — which Hayden characterized as a "management review" — appears to have been triggered by complaints from senior operation officers that they are being unfairly criticized by Helgerson's review of the Agency's global network of secret prisons.

Hayden may now be learning that not all IGs are equal. The IG at his previous post as National Security Agency director was among a second tier of IGs, created a decade after the original IG Act of 1978. Appointed by the agency head, they have less independence and investigatory powers and function more like internal auditors than the original batch of IGs that are attached to major government departments such as the CIA. Eleanor Hill, a former Defense Department IG from 1995 to 1999, suggested that the NSA's domestic wiretapping scandal might have been avoided if there had been greater oversight by the DOD IG. "A program as controversial as this one has turned out to be, in my view, certainly should have been overseen by the independent statutory [DOD] IG," she said.

As a critical means of congressional oversight, IGs have never been particularly popular with the executive branch. Virtually every federal agency testified against the draft IG Act legislation, with the Justice Department arguing it constitutionally violated the separation of powers. Two years later the Reagan Administration tried to eliminate the system altogether, and since then all administrations have tried gaming the system to avoid embarrassments.

But the system has become so dysfunctional in recent years that Congress is trying to give it added protections. New legislation to buttress IG independence easily passed the House in October and is expected to pass the Senate in November, although the President has already threatened a veto. The bill would make each IG appointment a fixed seven-year term, which is renewable, and would allow dismissal only for cause. IG budget requests would also have to be submitted to Congress, an important provision in light of the fact that some IGs have actually shrunk their staff. Unfortunately these kind of safeguards would come too late to address the critical nomination process. Nominees need to be better vetted, perhaps by a panel process or by the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO), Light suggests, before they ever appear before the Senate. They also probably need better oversight while they are in office. Even in extraordinary situations — such as when an Integrity Committee headed by a senior FBI official recommended the dismissal of NASA's IG Robert Cobb because he had alerted the NASA administrator to audits and FBI search warrants, and allowed him to try to direct IG investigations — there is nothing forcing the agency director or President to remove the IG.

The Bush Administration, not surprisingly, rejects the notion that it has somehow corrupted the system. Says Clay Johnson, Deputy Director of Management for the Office of Management and Budget and Chairman of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which oversees all government IGs: "By almost all accounts, this Administration has done more to improve government effectiveness than any previous Administration, ever."

Being an IG is no easy task — some liken the job to straddling barbed wire, or to being a skunk at a garden party. The IG must maintain a good working relationship with the agency director but at the same time maintain independence. At the CIA, for instance, there is always tension when headquarters staff investigate field operatives, who often complain that the Langley suits don't understand field conditions, says Frederick Hitz, CIA IG from 1990 1998 and now a lecturer in public and international affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. "That accusation is leveled at every IG; I got it in spades," he recalls, even though he began his career in the clandestine branch, running spies in West Africa.

Hitz views Hayden's investigation of his IG as a dangerous precedent that contains an implicit message to "call off the dogs" or go easier on his reporting. Helgerson has already rankled senior CIA staff, particularly with his examination of the agency's pre-9/11 intelligence failures, which broke with tradition by naming names, including CIA director George Tenet. Hayden fiercely resisted releasing even the executive summary of that report but was finally compelled to when Congress passed a law ordering it.

The original version of this article incorrectly included former Pentagon Inspector General Joseph Schmitz as one of the number of Bush administration IGs who "have been forced to resign under a cloud as a result of bipartisan pressure, often because of bald incompetence or gross interference with the IG mission." While at least one Democrat and one Republican senator were raising questions about Schmitz's job performance at the time of his resignation in September of 2005, Schmitz had in fact conveyed to the Secretary of Defense his decision to step down a year before. Moreover in October of 2006, the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency formally concluded that Schmitz "had not violated any law, rule or regulation...and had not engaged in gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, or abuse of authority in connection with any of the matters under review."