Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Tighter Lid on Records Threatens to Weaken Government Watchdogs

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One aspect of group loyalty is for members of a group to resist strongly (for reasons of loyalty) any investigation of the group and, when an investigation is launched, to attempt to conceal problems and wrong-doing from “outsiders.” We see this in how the Chicago Police Department lied about what happened and destroyed evidence in order to protect the murderer James Van Dyke, a member of the department. And now, we see it in US government agencies, as described in this NY Times story Eric Lichtblau:

Justice Department watchdogs ran into an unexpected roadblock last year when they began examining the role of federal drug agents in the fatal shootings of unarmed civilians during raids in Honduras.

The Drug Enforcement Administration balked at turning over emails from senior officials tied to the raids, according to the department’s inspector general. It took nearly a year of wrangling before the D.E.A. was willing to turn over all its records in a case that the inspector general said raised “serious questions” about agents’ use of deadly force.

The continuing Honduran inquiry is one of at least 20 investigations across the government that have been slowed, stymied or sometimes closed because of a long-simmering dispute between the Obama administration and its own watchdogs over the shrinking access of inspectors general to confidential records, according to records and interviews.

The impasse has hampered investigations into an array of programs and abuse reports — from allegations of sexual assaults in the Peace Corps to the F.B.I.’s terrorism powers, officials said. And it has threatened to roll back more than three decades of policy giving the watchdogs unfettered access to “all records” in their investigations.

“The bottom line is that we’re no longer independent,” Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department inspector general, said in an interview.

The restrictions reflect a broader effort by the Obama administration to prevent unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information — at the expense, some watchdogs insist, of government oversight.

Justice Department lawyers concluded in a legal opinion this summer that some protected records, like grand jury transcripts, wiretap intercepts and financial credit reports, could be kept off limits to government investigators. The administration insists there is no intention of curtailing investigations, but both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have expressed alarm and are promising to restore full access to the watchdogs.

The new restrictions grew out of a five-year-old dispute within the Justice Department. After a series of scathing reports by Glenn Fine, then the Justice Department inspector general, on F.B.I. abuses in counterterrorism programs, F.B.I. lawyers began asserting in 2010 that he could no longer have access to certain confidential records because they were legally protected.

That led to a series of high-level Justice Department reviews, a new procedure for reviewing records requests and, ultimately, a formal opinion in July from the department’s Office of Legal Counsel. That opinion, which applies to federal agencies across the government, concluded that the 1978 law giving an inspector general access to “all records” in investigations did not necessarily mean all records when it came to material like wiretap intercepts and grand jury reports. [That is, “all records” means “only some records.” This goes against the clear statement: “all records,” as most would clearly see, means “all records.” – LG]

The inspector-general system was created in 1978 in the wake of Watergate as an independent check on government abuse, and it has grown to include watchdogs at 72 federal agencies. Their investigations have produced thousands of often searing public reports on everything from secret terrorism programs and disaster responses to boondoggles like a lavish government conference in Las Vegas in 2010 that featured a clown and a mind reader.

Not surprisingly, tensions are common between the watchdogs and the officials they investigate. President Ronald Reagan, in fact, fired 15 inspectors general in 1981. But a number of scholars and investigators said the restrictions imposed by the Obama administration reflect a new level of acrimony.

“This is by far the most aggressive assault on the inspector general concept since the beginning,” said Paul Light, a New York University professor who has studied the system. “It’s the complete evisceration of the concept. You might as well fold them down. They’ve become defanged.”

While President Obama has boasted of running “the most transparent administration in history,” some watchdogs say the clampdown has scaled back scrutiny of government programs. [Indeed, the Obama administration consistently denies or delays FOIA requests, or provides materials so redacted as to be useless. The Obama administration is far from being transparent—it regularly refuses to cooperate with compensating victims of our undeclared warfare, such as those innocents tortured, or those killed in drone attacks. – LG]

“This runs against transparency,” said the Peace Corps inspector general, Kathy Buller.

At the Peace Corps, her office began running into problems two years ago in an investigation into the agency’s handling of allegations of sexual assaults against overseas volunteers. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2015 at 10:13 am

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