Obama and the case of the missing watchdogs

The Week

Confoundingly, the president has failed for years to find capable Inspector Generals to bust government waste, fraud, and misconduct. Why?

If Sherlock Holmes worked in Washington, I would hire him immediately to investigate a troubling phenomenon in the federal government. Let's call it the case of the disappearing watchdogs, also known as Inspectors General (IG). 

IGs oversee an army of talented auditors and investigators who independently bust waste, fraud, and misconduct within government agencies. In the past, IG-led investigations have exposed torture supported by the Bush Administration, misuse of the controversial Patriot Act, and Humvee "death traps" in Iraq. These watchdogs are vital to keeping federal agencies honest, and informing Congress of wrongdoing. They also save taxpayers up to $18 for every dollar invested in IGs, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report

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But some of the most important agency posts — for example, an IG for the State Department — are vacant, and have been for years. Many of these "missing watchdogs" require an appointment from President Obama before the Senate can confirm them, but the White House has been downright sluggish, if not outright negligent, in taking action. 

If Obama expects us to take his open government promises seriously, he needs to make Inspector General appointments a priority.

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"Every president, including Obama, talks about the need to root out government misconduct," says Dr. Paul C. Light, a New York University professor and former Brookings Institution fellow. "But when it comes to strengthening the IGs and appointing highly-qualified individuals, they go M.I.A. It just curls my hair." 

Light says he "can't imagine" any of the Republican presidential candidates addressing the problem, either. So with ineptitude from both parties, how do we solve this? As Sherlock — the Robert Downey Jr. version, of course — would say, "Never theorize before you have data. Invariably, you end up twisting facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

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Here are some facts: According to a new tracker published by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), there are now 12 IG vacancies, including the Department of State (vacant for nearly 1,500 days), the Department of Justice (nearly 400 days), the Department of Homeland Security (more than 360 days), and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (nearly 400 days).

Former State Department IG Clark Ervin told me via email that "it's incredibly important to have a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed Inspector General for every (applicable) agency, but certainly for one as crucial to national security as the State Department." 

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Indeed, the State Department is a prime example of an agency that is in desperate need of a permanent watchdog. Since Ervin left in 2003, the State Department has only had a permanent IG for two years. Acting or deputy IGs (like ambassadors) have filled the position instead, a practice that anonymous employees of the State Department have called a conflict-of-interest "disaster," as the temporary IGs often take management positions again after leaving the IG gigs — meaning their future jobs are dependent on the people they should be evaluating. Additionally, temporary IGs don't undergo the thorough congressional vetting process that is required for permanent IGs. 

Unfortunately, now that the U.S. has pulled out of Iraq, this "disaster" of an IG office is expected to oversee the State Department's management of thousands of contractors. And we all know how well-behaved (NSFW) contractors in contingency zones can be. This is a critical task. But Obama hasn't bothered to even nominate a candidate in his entire term in office. 

The State Department may be the agency that most urgently needs an IG, but it's not the only one. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has been without an IG for more than a year, despite being responsible for unearthing waste and misconduct in Afghanistan — a gargantuan task. Remember the "Fast and Furious" scandal? That bloody, botched U.S. gun-smuggling plan was allegedly covered up by the U.S. Justice Department, an agency that hasn't had a permanent IG for over a year. 

This begs the question: What the heck is going on? 

Ervin told me he thinks the Obama Administration may be failing to promptly appoint IGs because of a variety of factors, including "the difficulty of recruiting capable people from the private sector nowadays," a "toxic political environment," and "the complexity of the financial disclosure process."

However, it appears that there is more to the story. Light believes there is no shortage of highly-qualified auditors and investigators that would be honored to take on this tough job. Instead, he said the White House is failing to pursue candidates because it doesn't think it's a priority, and federal agencies, which can be hostile towards Inspector Generals, offer no encouragement. The result has been an appointment process that Light calls "nasty, brutish, and not at all short."

Fortunately, this is a problem with a fairly simple solution. If Obama expects us to take his open government promises seriously, he needs to make Inspector General appointments a priority, by recruiting and nominating strong, capable candidates. The Senate then needs to confirm them promptly. Procrastination is no longer an option — with billions of taxpayer dollars lost to waste and fraud abroad, it is imperative that the U.S. invests in oversight.  

On second thought, I'm not sure Sherlock would be impressed by this particular case, after all. Solving it is pretty elementary. 

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