Agency Watchdogs Ask Congress To Roll Back Decision Allowing Agencies To Withhold Documents From Oversight Entities
from the a-new-low-in-sensitivity-training dept
FBI. DEA. NSA. CIA. DHS. TSA. All these acronyms (and more) participate in activities that can (and do) have negative effects on Americans' civil liberties. But that's OK, says the government, because we have oversight. This assertion just simply isn't true. The Snowden leaks proved what oversight existed was beholden to the NSA and frequently put itself between the agency and legislators on the outside of the inner circle in order to keep its secrets protected.
Elsewhere, the entities charged with providing oversight for government agencies -- the various Inspector General's offices -- were finding themselves unable to pursue their duties because the agencies they watched refused to cooperate with their investigations. Michael Horowitz, the DOJ Inspector General, frequently expressed his displeasure with the DEA and FBI, both of which refused to provide him with the documents he was seeking.
Over at the CIA, Inspector General David Buckley performed his investigation of the alleged hacking of Senate staffers' computers. He found the allegations to be true. The CIA responded by discrediting his report and performing its own internal audit, which naturally found the agency to be blameless and the Senate at fault for supposedly abusing its access to CIA documents. Buckley retired. The CIA has yet to replace him.
As if things couldn't get any worse, the Office of Legal Counsel decided the best route for effective oversight was to hand over control to the agencies being overseen. On July 20th, it issued a decision that said Inspectors General needed to seek permission from the agencies under their purview for access to sensitive documents. If the agencies turned them down, too bad. They'd just have to do without.
The IGs -- representing 72 government agencies -- have sent a letter to Congress asking them to overturn the OLC's decision. (via Unredacted)
Despite the unequivocal language of Section 6(a) of the IG Act, the OLC opinion concludes that it does not entitle the DOJ-IG to obtain independent access to grand jury, wiretap, and credit information in the DOJ’s possession that is necessary for the DOJ-IG to perform its work. Indeed, the OLC opinion concludes that such records cannot be obtained by the DOJ-IG pursuant to the IG Act, and can only be obtained in certain – but not all – circumstances through provisions in the specific laws related to those records. Further, the opinion provides that only the Department of Justice itself decides whether access by the DOJ-IG is warranted – placing the agency that the DOJ-IG oversees in the position of deciding whether to grant the Inspector General access to information necessary to conduct effective and independent oversight. Requiring an Inspector General to obtain permission from agency staff in order to access agency information turns the principle of independent oversight that is enshrined in the IG Act on its head.In other words, things were already bad. Now, they're impossible. These agencies were already doing everything they could to thwart their oversight. Now, the OLC has given them permission to stonewall every single investigation that requires the access to "sensitive" agency documents -- which would be a great majority of them.
The OLC opinion’s restrictive reading of the IG Act represents a potentially serious challenge to the authority of every Inspector General and our collective ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently, and in a timely manner. Our concern is that, as a result of the OLC opinion, agencies other than DOJ may likewise withhold crucial records from their Inspectors General, adversely impacting their work. Even absent this opinion, agencies such as the Peace Corps and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) have restricted or denied their OIGs access to agency records on claims of common law privileges or assertions that other laws prohibit access. Similarly, the Department of Commerce denied its Inspector General (Commerce-IG) access to agency records that were needed for the Commerce-IG to complete an audit of agency operations because agency counsel had concluded, based on guidance that agency counsel said came from OLC, that it might be a violation of another federal statute to make the records available to its Inspector General. As a result, the Commerce-IG could not complete its audit.
The letter goes on to point out that the OLC's decision creates a smokescreen that will have serious repercussions for years to come.
Without timely and unfettered access to all necessary information, Inspectors General cannot ensure that all government programs and operations are subject to exacting and independent scrutiny. Refusing, restricting, or delaying an Inspector General's independent access may lead to incomplete, inaccurate, or significantly delayed findings and recommendations, which in turn may prevent the agency from promptly correcting serious problems and pursuing recoveries that benefit taxpayers, and deprive Congress of timely information regarding the agency's activities. It also may impede or otherwise inhibit investigations and prosecutions related to agency programs and operations.The OLC's decision is astounding, and should be undone as swiftly as possible. There's a lot of room for abuse in many agencies, and one of the only things acting as a check against this are the IGs. The assurances that there is sufficient oversight are hollow. There was very little oversight to begin with. With this determination in place, there's almost none. The denied access can likely be challenged, but time is often of the essence, and weeks or months of discussion over the release of documents can put a lot of space between badly-behaving agencies and whatever scandal they're attempting to ride out.
The OLC had decided government agencies shouldn't be accountable to the public, and its excuse is "security." It's being left up to agencies to decide what information is too "sensitive" to share with their overseers. And it will be evidence of screwups, quasi-legal activities and other abuses of power that receive this label first.