by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in reporting about Washington is a simple one: watch what politicians do, not what they say. There can be no better illustration of this than Obama’s summit meeting with African leaders last week. He used the meeting as an opportunity to tout the positive role inspectors general can play in fighting corruption in government agencies; at the same time that he was speechifying about this, some two-thirds of President Obama’s own inspectors general wrote a scathing letter to Congress complaining that his administration was placing “serious limitations” on their ability to do their jobs.
Vice President Joe Biden told the African leaders just last Monday that there is “a need to have in every government agency what we in the United States call, and it could be different in every country, we call it an inspector general.” He went on to describe an IG as “someone who is able to roam through every department, like here in the United States, the Defense Department, the IRS, the Treasury Department writ large, the Department of Interior, to be able to look at the books, to be able to look at everything that’s transpired with independent eyes — people who cannot be fired.” He concluded that “widespread corruption is an affront to the dignity of people and a direct threat to each of your nations’ stability.”
Stirring words, but equally stirring were the words of the 47 out of 73 independent inspectors general who wrote to Congress just the day after Biden’s speech to emphasize the importance of “the principle that an Inspector General must have complete, unfiltered, and timely access to all information and materials available to the agency that relate to that Inspector General’s oversight activities, without unreasonable administrative burdens.” …
… The IG letter to Congress last week cited several specific examples and was signed by IGs for the Treasury Department, the Justice Department, the Homeland Security Department, the Internal Revenue Service, and the National Security Agency. Many of the IGs who did not sign oversee very small agencies or congressional branch agencies that seldom have document-access needs of their own. It’s not as if the IGs are a clique of obsessive, conservative Inspector Javerts. President Obama appointed most of the IGs in office today, and all those who were appointed by him have been confirmed by a Democratic Senate.
That makes the complaints raised in the IGs’ letter all the more serious. More and more agencies are setting documents off-limits by declaring them “privileged.”